Metronome: may all your dreams be this fantastic

Book cover: Metronome - Oliver LangmeadWilliam Manderlay is old and arthritic. In his dreams, he relives his golden days as a violinist, a sailor, a lover – until the nightmares hunt him down. But William’s music holds the key to the prison at Solomon’s Eye, terrifying heart of the dream beyond dreams. Does William have enough youth left to him to help the Sleepwalkers fight off an army of nightmares intent on releasing the monster trapped there?

I’d never heard of Metronome – or its author, Oliver Langmead – but this Subjective Chaos fantasy finalist has convinced me to search out everything he has ever written. Yet it’s difficult to write about coherently, in part because I loved so many aspects that it didn’t necessarily deliver on.

I instantly loved the idea of a fantasy based in an old people’s home, but in spite of the framing device Metronome isn’t one. I loved charismatic, one-eyed Valentine and wheezing ex-boxer Aggie, Manderlay’s companions there – but they make only fleeting appearances. I’m always a fan of plot devices involving stepping through the dreams of others and exploring what it means to be in someone else’s dream… but Metronome takes only a cursory look at this, treating the dreams of others (quite rightly, to be fair) as something exceptionally private and not to be pried into.

Luckily, what Metronome is instead is wild and delightful, an adventure through the dream beyond dreams to try and save the world’s collective unconscious. After all, what we dream lingers with us into waking; a bad night’s sleep can turn into a grumpy morning; a lifetime of global nightmares could spell a future of war and disaster (I find this a compelling argument; good sleep is one of my favourite things).

The novel works within the framework of dream logic, giving Langmead an expansive, shifting canvas to switch directions, usher in new characters and paint his world in brilliant hues. The cities have evocative names (Babel, Binary) and striking descriptions, even as their citizens fade into the background as dream populations do.

Solomon’s Eye – at the heart of Solomon’s Storm – may hold an aspect of God (or possibly his nightmares), and the road that led there is long lost; but the right songs in the right sequence can lead a ship there. The Metronome is a flying clockwork ship with a ticking heart, crewed by a former word pirate (oh, be still my heart) with her own reasons for wishing to reach Solomon’s Eye.

The 12 Sleepwalkers – one for each month of the year – have the power to summon their dreams to help them (one dreams of the sun; the effects are devastating). Whether they hunt nightmares or recruit them to their cause, they are semi-divine forces in the elastic world of dreams, with flawed human hearts to guide them.

It makes for a heady mix, as William soon finds allies can be unreliable and friends may look like enemies. Langmead doesn’t need to explain his world-building choices or worry about consistency – because he successfully builds a world that resonates with echoes of myth, structured around the sideways logic of dreams. It rings true on its own terms, and we get to marvel along with William as events unfold around him.

The plot is just as dreamlike: Metronome cheerfully unravels red herring threads and leaves them trailing as dreams do, relying on the greater emotional arc to pull you through to the climax. And I can’t fault it for that – although it left me slightly conflicted, because I’m a reader who likes to see things through. Ultimately, I feel the ending is perhaps a little too ambiguous, side-stepping the implications in favour of focusing on the emotional impact on William – but the pay-off worked so well in context that I still ended the book feeling satisfied.

Definitely an author to watch out for.