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Book cover art by Jim Gurney.
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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The sophomore novel by Steven R. Boyett is a marvelously inventive down-the-rabbit-hole adventure set on an alternate Earth that I am prevented from giving the enthusiastic recommendation it deserves due to one very slight problem: it's not finished. The Architect of Sleep ends smack dab in the middle of its story, right as one of its protagonists has had an epiphany that will, we are clearly meant to understand, guide the action through its sequel to a thrilling climax and resolution. Unfortunately, instead of delivering that sequel, Boyett's next offering was what you might call Career, Interrupted. Thus it remained for a quarter-century. Now that he's back in the writing saddle after all this time, it would be nice to see him finish what he started, because it's a corker of an idea, winningly handled. Reading The Architect of Sleep is like getting addicted to a cool TV show that the network suddenly cancels right as it's getting good.

Post-collegiate slacker James Bentley decides to take in an afternoon of caving before heading in to his graveyeard shift at the 7-11. While exploring a particularly tight and twisty cave passage, he enters a chamber and is transported to a strange variant of our world in which raccoons, and not humans, evolved sentience and civilization. (The inspiration for this witty and original twist on a hackneyed premise seems to have been an actual pet raccoon of Boyett's, and he incorporates his touching memories of this critter into Bentley's own backstory.) Boyett not only has fun playing with the novelty of his concept here — with Bentley amusingly comparing his situation to Planet of the Apes — but he takes it seriously precisely where he needs to, quickly turning his strange milieu into a convincing world through his establishment of the raccoons' language and culture. It's just the right mix to sell the story.

Bentley becomes the traveling companion of Truck, who may be an outlaw, is certainly a thief, and whom we soon discover is much more. The bipedal raccoons in this cockeyed world (it has two moons) communicate almost entirely nonverbally through signing. Much of the story is given over to Bentley's learning an entirely new approach to language, and as we read much of the tale through his first-person narration, we share his initial alienation and homesickness, and he has our sympathy when it becomes clear to him that, unlike the Pevensie children in Narnia, he probably won't be going back any time soon.

Other chapters are written in Truck's own first-person, translated by Bentley at a later date (an indication that Boyett really was thinking long-term with this story), and here we learn just what sort of complex culture Bentley has stumbled into. Truck is, among other things, a True Dreamer, whose precognitive visions foresaw the arrival of a strange alien entity like Bentley into his world. Moreover, Bentley has a role to play, as yet unknown, in unfolding events that involve Truck and possibly the fate of the raccoons' world. Yes, fantastic fiction is chock full of prophecies and chosen ones and visions of destiny, and by falling back on these tropes Boyett does sacrifice some of his story's originality. But he makes his saving throw because our attention is gripped by the level of depth he's brought to the plot through these tropes. This is no mere rehash of Ariel, with a human and a mythical creature buddying up on a quest through an inhospitable wasteland. There's a lot of political strife in play in the complex raccoon society, and events are almost certainly leading to war.

But dammit, we never get there, because right as things are getting really intriguing, Boyett signs off, and the "To be continued..." ending — which isn't handled nearly as well as it should have been, because even series novels ought to serve well as whole novels, and here the narrative literally stops in medias res — wouldn't have been such a letdown had it actually continued. As it stands, The Architect of Sleep is not only frustrating, but punch-a-hole-in-the-wall infuriating, because it's so good at what it sets up and leaves little doubt that what was to come would have been awesome.