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Review copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Dominik Derow
Dreams of the Dying by Nicolas Lietzau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Enderal (Book #1 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 826 pages (Hardcover edition)
Published: 28th October 2020 by Nicolas Lietzau (Self-published)
A new masterpiece is here. It is a cliché to say this, but Dreams of the Dying is seriously one of the best books I’ve ever read.
“The mind is a malleable thing. Soil, if you’re feeling poetic. Depending on the seed, anything will grow in it, from graceful gardens to idyllic meadows, from weedy forests to foggy swamps. Harmonious or chaotic, peaceful or perilous, healthy or ill—it’s all a matter of seeds.
First of all, Dreams of the Dying is the biggest production value I’ve ever seen being given to a self-published book; it’s up there with Dragon Mage by M.L. Spencer for a non-Kickstarter campaigned book. In fact, the production value of this novel overshadowed the majority of traditionally published books. If you decide to buy this book and somehow never gotten around to reading it, this novel would actually work beautifully as a luxurious decoration on your home, but more on this later. Here’s the thing, when Lietzau approached me asking me to review his debut, I accepted the review request despite having an unhealthy TBR pile that judges me every day of my life; you know me, how could I resist after looking at that gorgeous cover art? And I’m super glad I accepted it. I absolutely loved this book. This book was so good that I honestly won’t accept any words of gratitude from Lietzau if he wants to thank me for writing this review. Why? Because I should be the one thanking him for giving me the chance to read this fantastic debut.
“Our minds shape reality … that is why superstitious peasants burn witches, jealous lovers murder their beloved, and lonely veterans put nooses around their necks.”
Dreams of the Dying is the first book in Enderal trilogy by Nicolas Lietzau, and it revolves around Jespar Dal’Varek; years after a harrowing war experience, Jespar has taken to drifting. Excluding the occasional moments of melancholia, he tells himself that life is alright. Hoping to turn the page, Jespar accepts a mysterious invitation into the beautiful and dangerous archipelago of Kilay. Kilay is on the brink of civil war, and Jaanos Oonai—Kilay’s merchant king—may be the only one able to prevent this catastrophe, but he has fallen into a preternatural coma. It is Jespar’s job to figure out the mystery behind this, but little did he know that this investigation and the king’s nightmares will require him to face his past and trauma. Battling old trauma while fighting for his life, sanity, and the fate of Kilay, the line between dream and reality blurs further and further, until one question remains: If your mind is the enemy, where do you run? Remember this line; it is one of the most integral themes of the entire book. Although battles, war, and pulse-pounding scenes indeed exist in Dreams of the Dying, I want you to know that this isn’t a battle-centered novel; Lietzau steers the majority of the narrative in the novel towards the psychological aspect, and they were exceptional.
“Be realistic, Lysia, the only time a running system ever changes is in response to a crisis. As long as life is all right for the majority, nothing’s gonna happen… And when things do go south, people will always resort to violence. It’s just human nature.”
Dreams of the Dying is an incredibly character-driven—my favorite type of story—novel, and with his characters, Lietzau tackles a lot of difficult and resonating issues such as mental illness, redemption, trauma, love, power, ambition, poverty, and wealth. In popular pop culture, Dreams of the Dying can probably be defined as a more insane version of Inception. However, this is an oversimplification; there’s so much more to this novel. Madness, politics, friendship, dreams, the rise to power, and how ascendancy to a higher status corrupts a good intention in an individual was executed with utter finesse.
“If you fight injustice with injustice, no matter how deserved it may feel, you’ll always end up as just another turn of the wheel.”
Lietzau deserves a standing ovation for the wonderful characterizations he successfully implemented into the characters here. Jespar, The Man, Lysia, Kawu, Agaam, and many more were totally compelling characters; they’re flawed, complex, morally grey, and the characterizations given to them were nothing short of outstanding. We really get to see their emotions laid bare and raw; this was especially true for the two main POV characters: Jespar and The Man. I am in awe at what Lietzau achieved here with these two characters. Jespar and The Man did questionable actions, but I never once felt like they were acting out of their characters; most importantly, I understood them. The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson is one of my top favorite series of all time, and among many things, Sanderson’s handling of depression and mental illness was one of the reasons why. I truly believe that Dreams of the Dying contains the finest exploration on depression and melancholia that I’ve read since The Stormlight Archive. Yes, it is THAT good.
“People were so quick to point at all those inspiring stories of catharsis, completely ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the broken never beat their demons, that the drunkard’s son stayed with the bottle, the war widow never conquered her loneliness, and the defiled child never wiped that imagined black stain from their soul. Because in a world that worshipped the victorious, who the hell wanted to hear about the defeated?”
As I mentioned earlier, the entire story is told exclusively through Jespar and The Man’s perspective. It’s true that Jespar’s POV chapters filled the majority of the novel, and they’re indeed excellent, but I do honestly believe that Lietzau displayed an immensely admirable talent in his characterizations further with The Interludes chapters; The Man’s POV chapters. I think it’s quite clear who The Man is from his first few chapters, but for the sake of keeping this review spoiler-free, I’m going to keep referring to this character as The Man. It’s not an exaggeration for me to say that the Interludes in Dreams of the Dying are some of the greatest relatively short chapters I’ve ever witnessed; they’re highly effective and efficient in giving all the necessary characterizations to “The Man.” I was immediately hooked and absorbed right from his first chapter, and seeing his character development—enhanced by what we’ve learned through Jespar’s POV—fascinated me. He’s one of the most well-written anti-heroes—if you can call him that—I’ve ever read in speculative fiction. I love to hate his character, but I also can’t help but be completely manipulated into being transfixed by his actions and charisma. Everything about his story was dark, visceral, and marvelous; I have no doubt that grimdark fantasy enthusiasts will have a blast reading The Man’s POV chapters.
“Life is an arena, and even if you’re the champion, one second of weakness is all it takes for the lions to pounce. Always remember that.”
The world-building in Dreams of the Dying is intricate and meticulously built. I’m not kidding; the author has gone above and beyond to work with a professional linguist and cartographer to create a believable language and map; the detailed histories and different cultures of the world established so far here made my immersion when I’m reading the book even more powerful. Then there’s also the magic system and users; biomancer, psychomancer, dreamwalker—a Sight that allows the Sighted to enter someone else’s dreams—and more. There’s just so much to unpack here; The Kilayan Archipelago is beautiful, huge, and get this, this archipelago is only one small part of the world—Vyn—that Lietzau has created; there’s still so much more to explore, and I can’t wait to read about them.
Picture: Dreams of the Dying by Stefan Stankovic
To say that I enjoyed reading this book may be an understatement here; I loved Lietzau’s way of writing. Every phrase and line was delivered with impact, and no page ever felt wasted. Lietzau covers philosophical, metaphor, humor, love, and thought-provoking passages skillfully; the emotions of the characters were palpable, and my experience of reading this book was vivid. It is hard to write a not-confusing and captivating dream sequences, but the haunting visions that Lietzau has painted with his words were easy to follow and unforgettable; I don’t think I can ever forget the dream sequences I’ve read here. Every philosophical discussion plays a part in enriching the plot and characterizations. Plus, Lietzau made sure that the philosophical discussions weren’t there just to be highlighted. I won’t lie, the novel can be bleak at times; the tackling of mental illness will more often than not result in a bleak and heartbreaking narrative. However, Dreams of the Dying is also embedded with hope, redemption, and love, and I cherished them all. There’s a lot of food for thoughts and discussions here for sure, and maybe one day—if I have the time—I’ll make a video or two about the content and greatness of it in more detail.
“Change isn’t a flash but a long and rocky road.”
Lastly, this review is long enough already, but it would be incomplete if I don’t talk about the stunning production value. The cover art—one of the best cover arts I’ve ever seen—and all the interior artworks are done by Dominik Derow; do check out his portfolio. Johanna Krunes is in charge of the Cover Layout and Design of the book. Speaking of design, Lietzau did an interesting thing with the format in some pages to elaborate upon the state of mind that Jespar experienced, and I think they’re smartly used. The only two other occasions where I encountered such a clever usage of formatting were in The Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff and The Wounded Kingdom trilogy by R.J. Barker. Now let’s talk about the hardcover edition that comes with exclusive content. The hardcover edition featured a 100-page illustrated appendix at the end of the book. This bonus content consists of chapters that heightened the quality of the world-building. I’m going to list them here:
• An essay on the history of the Kilayan Archipelago and the Illumined World
• A short geographical overview of the Kilayan Archipelago
• A bestiary of the Archipelago’s native creatures
• A guide to Makehu, the language spoken by the Makehu people, designed by a professional linguist
• A Nehrimese tailor’s impressions of Kilayan fashion
• A lecture on Oneiromancy
• The Great Umbra and the Resurrection of the World, the creation myth of the Makehu
• Pencil sketches of the characters, as envisioned by another in-universe character
• An overview of the seven Light-Born, the pantheon of the Illumined World
• To the Moon I Say Farewell, a poem by Jespar’s sister
The hardcover is more pricey, and I’m fortunate to be given the hardcover edition to read and review, but if that weren’t the case, I’m sure I would’ve chosen for the hardcover edition anyway; I’m a sucker for illustrated edition, I don’t know how to resist them. Here are a few—there’s a LOT of illustrations—examples of the artworks:
Whether it’s from the exterior or interior, Dreams of the Dying is a must-have and must-read fantasy novel for fans of the genre, especially if you love reading about morally grey characters we can empathize with. This is a novel that is both superbly produced and written. Every sentence is supplied with brilliance, and I have nothing but praises for Dreams of the Dying; it is simply a masterpiece. If you look at my ‘masterpieces’ shelf, there’s only one self-published book there: The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang. Dreams of the Dying will deservedly accompany The Sword of Kaigen there. Just like The Sword of Kaigen, in its own way, I started this book expecting an incredible read, but I finished it realizing that I’ve just read one of a kind reading experience that will be challenging to imitate by any other authors. At the time of writing this review, Dreams of the Dying has an average rating of 4.78 out of 138 ratings and 66 reviews on Goodreads; I personally think this is an utterly well-deserved average rating, but it definitely needs more readership. Read this book ASAP; there’s no cliffhanger, and the book worked absolutely well as a standalone while promising new storylines to come. The ending isn’t even anything explosive, but my heart was constantly pounding. You can’t run from your own mind, and my mind can’t stop thinking about the events that have transpired in this novel. Read this amazing book.
“Once the mind commits to a story, the facts become secondary. Truth bows to bias.”
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