Themes Explored: reality, dreaming, mandatory drugging, medical ethics, relationships, television, integrative technology, importance of education, adolescence, coming of age, romance, consequences, independence, peer pressure
Synopsis: Rosie Sinclair is a first year student at the prestigious Forge School. Students at Forge come for a world class education and to appear on the wildly popular Forge Show. Each student has to compete to keep their blip rating up amongst viewers, otherwise they will be cut from the show and the school. However, everything is not as it seems. One evening Rosie decides to skip the mandatory sleeping pill. What she finds will cause her to question everything she has learned at Forge. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: What happens when you no longer control your own dreams? Do you know what really goes on around you at night? These are questions Caragh M O’Brien explores in her new trilogy, The Vault of Dreamers. In this psychological dystopian trilogy, O’Brien explores what happens when your dreams are no longer your own. I was not a fan of O’Brien’s Birthmarked Trilogy, so I did not have high expectations for the first book in her new trilogy. However, the concept of a reality TV show built around a mysterious boarding school sounded intriguing. Hence, I decided to give the first book a chance. While The Vault of Dreamers was not the greatest YA dystopian novel ever, it was a solid start.
The Forge School is the most prestigious performing art school in the country. And the secret to its success is that every moment of the students’ lives are televised for the daily Forge Show. After classes end, all the students have twelve hours of drug induced sleep designed to promote creativity. For the most part all students accept this sleep schedule without complaint. But first year student Rosie Sinclair decides to skip her pill one night and discovers that Forge has a hidden secret. The longer Rosie stays off the sleeping pill, the more frayed her conscience becomes. Soon Rosie discovers that all dreams come with a price.
Rosie is a rather complex heroine, she is humble and notices things others ignore. For the most part she comes across as a fairly typical teenager. She is moody, smart, naïve, independent, impressionable, and a rule breaker. What annoyed about Rosie’s characterization is her unbelievably innocent views about The Forge School. The narrative describes the Forge Show as being the most popular television show on the air. Yet Rosie seems incredibly naïve about how the show works and what students must do to gain popularity. On the other hand, she is also quite jaded about life and school in general. Also, we are meant to believe that Rosie marches to the beat of her own drum yet also succumbs to peer pressure at the drop of a hat. I suppose this is rather typical behavior for sixteen year olds, but it was frustrating to read about her constant inconsistency. Perhaps the worst part of Rosie’s characterization is her lack of worldliness. Apparently she grew up amongst the poorest of the poor yet has no idea how the world works. A teenager from the slums is going to pick a few things up, but Rosie is more prep-school than street smart.
About three-fourths of the novel focuses on Rosie, her friends, and her burgeoning romance. She does not even begin to investigate Forge until the last part of the novel. I was hoping the narrative would focus more on the secrets of Forge and less on how the students’ competed for more fans. There is little explanation about the world outside of Forge, so there is no information about how the technologies came to exist. I really hope the next two books deal more with the background of the science because the information provided in this book is frustratingly thin. The Vault of Dreamers occurs in an undetermined future and technology is only slightly more advanced that what is available today. And the economics of the world seem wackier than today but the reasons are never explored or explained. The lack of clarity about the politics and society of this new future makes part of the narrative extremely frustrating. Given what Rosie uncovers at the end, some world development would have helped flesh out the antagonist’s motives.
Thankfully the love triangle I fully expected never emerged. I was quite relived because love triangles are never done well and frustrate me beyond belief. However, the romance still felt too much like a box mix. Just add water and bam, love awaits. Actually, the pivotal romantic moment involves rain, so the box mix analogy is not far off the mark. The love interest, Linus, mistrusts Rosie the first minute he meets her and then has a heart-to-heart with her in the next paragraph. All on camera of course. My personal view on love at first sight aside, this whole romantic development feels rushed and insincere. Especially since most of this “romance” involves Rosie constantly questioning Linus’ motives at every turn. O’Brien hints at Linus’ tumultuous childhood yet never gives a real backstory. This lack makes Linus come across as one-dimensional. He appears when the narrative requires a voice of reason to counter Rosie’s mounting paranoia. Linus suffers from an appalling lack of personality. Hopefully this problem will be resolved in the next installment. Otherwise, this romance is going nowhere fast.
Because The Vault of Dreamers is the first book in a trilogy, I can forgive the horrific ending and lack of characterization. However, this does no excuse the glaring problem of a poorly defined antagonist and no societal backstory. Stories set in the future require a few societal advancements in order to distinguish between the “now” and “then”. When I finished the book, I was left craving world building and explanation for the supposed scientific advancements. And the pacing goes so quickly that the book feels more like a standalone than an introduction to a trilogy. Even though I know more books are in the works, the ending feels too definitive. I will probably read the next book because I am interested to see how O’Brien gets Rosie out of her predicament. But the trilogy will fall flat if O’Brien does not flesh out her world beyond the Forge campus.
The Vault of Dreamers, Roaring Brook Press, 2014, ISBN 9781596439382