The Realt by James Brogden review

Book two of James Brogden's Tourmaline trilogy is a satisfyingly complex, pacy imaginative novel that never stops moving forward...

You could describe James Brogden’s world of Tourmaline as a portal story – a tale of a window between worlds. From Amber to Fionavar, Narnia to Wonderland, portal stories of characters crossing over to another place where the rules are different have always been popular. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s a dream come true to think the weak could become strong, the familiar could become strange, and the boring could become the most exciting experience imaginable just by, say, stepping into a wardrobe. It gives the reader the opportunity to think about how we could be totally different people if only we had lived in a time and place that allowed us to exploit our potential. There’s also the flipside of that argument – would we be substantially worse? Would the sudden change in circumstance affect our minds (Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, say), and lead us to horrible acts?  Would it be a dream, or a nightmare?

The Realt is all about our dreams. But these aren’t the kind of waking daydreams we have where we imagine winning the lottery or finding out we have superpowers. Instead they’re the dreams we have deep in sleep, where everything is twisted and weird. In those moments it’s possible to cross over into a land called Tourmaline, and to do immense damage to that place, bringing nightmarish creations from our subconscious with us. Funnily enough, the people in Tourmaline would like to stop people from crossing over – but it’s not that simple.

For instance, some people have moved from our world to theirs in different ways. Coma patients such as Allie, awoken into Tourmaline and somehow pregnant at the start of the book, would love to stay in the world where she has a walking, talking life once more. Her battle to stay has an emotional core to it that grounds the book. Allie’s lover, Bobby, has his own problems. He needs to get back into Tourmaline, but not within a dream; he wants to take his body (well, the body he’s inhabiting – this is complicated stuff at times) with him. His journey to reconnect with Allie is a struggle that threatens the space between the worlds.

This really only describes one strand of a complex book, in terms of narrative. There are also political machinations, romantic entanglements, and full-on body horror, but throughout every element there’s a great sense of the plot driving forward. The action sequences are brilliantly done – pacy and filled with clear intent. Plus there are some magnificently awful creations that would make anyone shudder.

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The Realt is the second book in a trilogy, and I would say that there are few concessions for those, like me, who are picking up the storylines at this point. There is an introduction that is basically a quick recap of Book One, but it’s difficult to hold that information in your head when you’re immediately forging into fresh territory. Having said that, I did pick up the general gist along the way, referring back to the intro as and when I needed to, and maybe that’s a small price to pay when the alternative could have been a book bogged down by recapping. The solution to this? I’d recommend reading Book One first. In retrospect, I wish I had.

It’s interesting that many portal stories contain some very familiar elements, and yet as a genre this type of fantasy can easily accommodate so many variations, even within the same novel. In the case of The Realt, the superhero powers and the love interests, the monsters that lurk between worlds and the diplomats who try to save worlds, all do jostle for position, it’s true. But I felt the result was surprisingly cohesive, and the adventure was certainly enjoyable. Plus all these different aspects suggest that there is easily room in Brogden’s universe for another novel. There’s a breadth to it that could allow for much more exploration, because everything springs from that great starting point – that when we dream, we can travel. And the things that we dream can, brilliantly and horribly, come true.

The Realt was published on May 1, 2015 by Snowbooks, but I’d certainly recommend starting with Tourmaline, which was published on September 1, 2013.

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4 out of 5