The Dream Hunter
The first time I read The Dream Hunter, three years ago, I didn’t like it. At all. I don’t remember specific reasons, but I recorded a D as my grade for it in my personal reading log. I suspect I disliked the heroine and grew impatient for the slow-to-arrive resolution. My, how I have changed.
I picked this one up again because I ran across a free copy and somehow I couldn’t pass it by. Reading a discussion of this book elsewhere on the web, I wondered if perhaps I should give it another try. I’m so glad I did. This book has many things going for it: a unique setting, lovely, seamless Kinsale prose, and as fully-fleshed a cast of characters as you’ll find anywhere. Everyone in this book has depth.
Zenobia (Zenia) Stanhope has been at the mercy of her brilliant, charismatic, tyrannical mother all her life. Her one wish, to go to England to meet her father, Michael Bruce, is repeatedly denied her. Instead Lady Hester sends her to live in the desert with the Bedouins. After Hester’s funeral, Zenia is desolated, completely unsure of what the future holds for her. Luckily, or unluckily, also present at the funeral is Arden Mansfield, Lord Winter, one of Hester’s long-time admirers. When violence breaks out in the Stanhope compound, the two of them escape. And Zenia finds herself in a very dangerous situation with a man who is afraid of nothing.
Arden isn’t precisely fearless, but he is battle brave beyond belief and a fantastic bluffer. He is in search of the famed horse, String of Pearls. He drags Zenia into his scheme not knowing Zenia is a she. He promises her that if she helps him get to his destination, he’ll arrange for her to travel to England. Since she has no choice, she agrees. But things go horribly awry before Arden’s goal is met, and Zenia finds herself alone, pregnant and using Arden’s name to get to London.
Three years later they meet again when Arden returns from the dead to find that he has a wife and daughter and the two of them have been happily ensconced at Swanmere, his family’s estate, for some time. His feelings for Zenia are still very strong. The only problem is, he can’t find a trace of the daring desert companion he loved in the entirely proper English lady before him.
My own personal preference is for the last two-thirds of this book. I wasn’t terribly interested in Arden and Zenia’s desert adventure. Kinsale’s description of the desert and Arab culture was well done, however, and, to my knowledge, authentic. The best, brashest, and bravest parts of our two leads are also showcased here. It’s easier to like Zenia when she’s in her own element and not constrained by a culture she barely understands.
That said, the book really perks up when Zenia arrives in England. It’s then that she is presented with a set of choices about her future and that of her child. And when Arden arrives on the scene, all the precarious relationship constructs Zenia has only just established get shaken to their foundations. It was fascinating to watch how Arden and his loving but chilly parents danced around Zenia’s personal fears and dysfunctions.
The Dream Hunter’s biggest strength is Kinsale’s amazing ability to create living, breathing characters. The nanny, Michael Bruce, Zenia’s lawyer, heck, even walk-on, one-scene characters have real personality. Zenia herself is complicated and not always very likable. Her childhood insecurities often get the better of her, and she makes poor choices often because she trusts no one and is severely risk averse. She is always consistent, however, and her actions, however aggravating, ring true.
Arden is terribly appealing with his contrasting boldness and vulnerability. He is ardent and fierce, and yet there is a playful, gentle, shy side to him as well. It was both touching and amusing when, failing to communicate with Zenia in every other way, Arden purchases a book on etiquette and awkwardly follows its stilted, unoriginal suggestions because he is that determined not to lose Zenia. The emotional payoff of this book comes late, but when it comes it’s well worth the wait.
Kinsale’s prose, as usual, is beautiful, evocative, and insightful. She never violates the Show-Not-Tell rule. It’s amazing how much information she is able to convey about Arden’s childhood and his parents without ever spelling it out. She deftly includes the smaller details of living in England and Arabia, fleshing out the setting and showing the rhythm, sparkle, and mundane aspects of real life.
I am positive that this isn’t the book for everyone. It’s not even a book Kinsale lovers can agree on. Certainly, The Dream Hunter is not as technically perfect and ingenious as For My Lady’s Heart or Flowers from the Storm, and it’s not as dryly funny or emotionally strong as The Shadow and the Star. It’s not Kinsale’s very best. But even mediocre Kinsale; and this is far from mediocre; is better than the majority of historicals occupying space in used bookstores around the country.
Three years ago I returned to reading romance after a very lengthy hiatus and everything seemed interesting and unique. Now I’m tired of Regency England, too perfect characters, cardboard villains and prosaic plots. I’m searching for the less straightforward and for the unpredictable. If you’re looking for something different, something thoughtful, something with exquisitely realized characterization, The Dream Hunter is the book for you.