Aspen and the Dream Walkers is a new young adult fantasy novel by Caroline Swart, the first in a series entitled The Dream Walkers. Aspen is approaching her sixteenth birthday, and life isn’t exactly great. Her father died when she was very young, and her stepfather and stepsister are horrible to her – Miriam, her stepsister, has is spoilt by her father while Aspen has nothing. Then Aspen starts to have very realistic dreams, and she becomes friends with Dylan and Sandy, new students at her school. Soon she learns that dreams are not just dreams…
Some time ago I read and reviewed Ms Swart’s debut novel, Liquid Gold. I enjoyed the story and excitement of the novel, but felt that there was improvement to be made, although the author definitely had promise. So when given the chance to read her second novel, I was keen to see how her writing had progressed. Aspen and the Dream Walkers is a very different novel to Liquid Gold, but both fit into genres that I enjoy.
The basic set up of Aspen and the Dream Walkers is familiar – a young girl has a less than ideal home life, and then discovers there is more to life than meets the eye, and of course meets a handsome boy along the way. Many young adult novels (and adult novels for that matter) follow this mould, and it has similarities to tales through the ages. Although predictable, this set up gives the reader the anticipation of better things to come for Aspen. We know that soon she will learn about her true self, and we can assume that adventures will follow.
Those adventures do follow, although the action is a little restrained. This is entirely appropriate for the first novel in a series – Aspen is only beginning to learn about the Dream Walkers and their world, and so the gradual introduction of exciting action passages fits with the story. Although we do begin to see that Aspen is rather special, it wouldn’t be very believable if she suddenly piled in and saved the world. There is a lot of information for Aspen to take in, and as she learns, so do we.
Aspen herself is a good lead character. From the very outset, Ms Swart builds up our sympathy for Aspen as we see her depressing home life, and then we share some of Aspen’s hope as things start to look up. Aspen isn’t an annoyingly popular or improbable heroine, she’s a pretty girl but generally quite average, the kind of character that teenage girls can identify with. Miriam is the perfect high school villain – pretty, popular, bitchy, and able to put Aspen down at every turn. There are proper bad guys in the story, but they didn’t ellicit the same hate from me as Miriam did.
As for Ms Swart’s writing, I can’t say whether it has improved with this second publication or whether this story simply suits her better, but it does flow better than Liquid Gold. It was by no means a badly written book, but Aspen and the Dream Walkers flows more naturally. The characters are more real, and bring out more emotion, good or bad, in the reader. The novel is also much better paced – one issue I had with Liquid Gold was that the ending seemed rushed (I should state that Ms Swart has edited the ending since I reviewed that novel), but there is no such issue with Aspen and the Dream Walkers. The novel is paced well, never rushing, and always giving us all the information we need to understand Aspen’s new world.
The only negative I would say is that the dialogue sometimes comes across as a bit stilted, particularly when you consider that many of the characters are teenagers. I’m not suggesting that “teen speak” is necessary, in fact I prefer novels without that, but the dialogue needs to be a little bit more relaxed. One specific criticism would be that Aspen’s phrase of choice when surprised or upset is “Oh my word!”. Again, I’m not suggesting that swearing would be necessary (or even desirable in fact), but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a sixteen year old who says that. Or anyone under sixty.
Aspen and the Dream Walkers is billed as a young adult fantasy novel, and I think it fits into that genre nicely. Those of us who are old enough to know better yet still read young adult novels will enjoy it, but it’s probably not one that will appeal to a wider audience. Despite not containing painful teen-speak or pointless pop culture references, it is about the fantasy adventures of a group of teenagers, and that won’t appeal to the majority of adult readers.
Saying that though, I would recommend Aspen and the Dream Walkers, and I look forward to reading the second installment, Ruby and the Fire Walkers.
Many thanks to the author for providing a review copy of Aspen and the Dream Walkers.
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