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Dreamers of the Day and Dreaming Spies

July 11, 2016

I was reading Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day, slowly, and then I got a copy of Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies for my birthday and read it in a couple of sittings. Putting the two books one on top of the other on my pile of books I’ve just finished resulted in some confusion from people who came by and looked at the pile (which also included Touch by Claire North, Well Wished by Franny Billingsley and The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig).

Mary Russell the character is married to Sherlock Holmes, and Mary D. Russell the author is not, although they both have traveled extensively in the middle east. In Dreamers of the Day, Mary Russell’s character Agnes Shanklin travels from Ohio to Cairo and through the middle east before the outbreak of WWII with Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill. She learns to shed her small-town Ohio preconceptions and accepts almost everything she sees as good within its own culture, including things like 12-year-old girls married off to middle-aged men. She has an affair with a German spy and reflects that
“If we are timid or rebellious or both, then travel—by itself and by ourselves—forces us to leave our old lives behind. Travel can overcome habitual resistance and set the soul in motion along magnetic lines of attraction. On foreign soil, desires—denied, policed, constrained at home—can be unbound. What hides beneath the skin-thin surface of the domesticated self is sensual, sexual, adult.”

There’s a strange postlude to Agnes’ story that takes place after her death. She has joined others who swallowed the waters of the Nile, and they are talking about war, how
“each war ends with the black seeds of the next war sown….Always, someone steps forward, ready to water and weed and harvest those black seeds, dreaming of the day when they will bring forth their bounty of vindictive vindication. Into that dreamer’s ear, a bloodred god whispers, ‘Offer flattery in one hand, fear in the other. Rule or be ruled! Dominate or disappear!’
The rationales warp and twist and shift. The closer war comes, the simpler and stupider the choices. Are you a warrior or a coward? Are you with us or against us?
‘All men dream,’ Colonel Lawrence wrote, ‘but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.’”

Mary Russell the character, on the other hand, travels through Japan in Dreaming Spies, her latest adventure, and eventually meets the Emperor, to whom Holmes explains that “allowing the world to think I am a character in some stories is the only way to obtain a degree of freedom. Fame is a sword with two edges: it permits a man to cut through the inconveniences of bureaucracy, but it also threatens to open one’s life to the world.”

I enjoyed learning about Japanese customs with Mary the character, and seeing her not only adapt to them but find ways to use them to her advantage. Laurie R. King the author solves the mystery and leaves all the ends tidied up satisfactorily.

Mary D. Russell the author has bigger ambitions for Agnes’ travelogue, I think, but in the end she herself reduces her message to three pieces of advice. It’s good advice, but seems to me out of place at the end of an entire novel, especially about a place as tumultuous and shifting as the middle east:
“Read to children.
Vote.
And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”

In the case of these two Mary Russells, the fictional and less ambitious dreamer is way more fun.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2016 5:11 pm

    For as much as I liked Mary Doria Russell’s book The Sparrow, I haven’t been able to get into any of her other books. Dreamers of the Day didn’t wow me, in particular, even though it felt like the one of her books that was most up my alley. :/

    • July 12, 2016 8:35 am

      That has been my experience as well, although I’ve only paged through her other books. There’s something about her calm and matter-of-fact tone that worked particularly well in The Sparrow.

  2. July 12, 2016 2:06 pm

    What a funny confluence of Mary Russells! Too bad Dreamers of the Day was disappointing especially after liking The Sparrow so much. I will definitely keep that in mind since I should be starting The Sparrow within a week or so.

  3. July 12, 2016 5:06 pm

    I like fun so I’d gravitate toward the King book.

  4. Jenny permalink
    July 14, 2016 7:11 pm

    I was interested to note in What Makes This Book So Great that Jo Walton *hated* The Sparrow. I am curious why! I liked it a lot but despised the sequel. And I am so pleased you liked Dreaming Spies, because so did I. Very satisfying.

    • July 14, 2016 8:50 pm

      I’m also really curious about why Jo Walton hated The Sparrow. I liked the experience of reading it. I’m a sucker for any really different reading experience, which is why I was (and remain) so delighted by The Gone-Away World.

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