The Dream Murderer Cycle by Paul Taffinder

The Dream Murderer Cycle by science fantasy author Paul Taffinder is an epic and enthralling future Earth trilogy packed with peril and pathos that keeps one foot firmly in the real world as it dives deep into the human condition.

By Gwyneth Rees

Science fantasy fiction typically demands the prolonged attention of readers, inviting them into a massive world replete with its own politics, culture, history and mythology.

In the hands of lesser writers, this fictional universe can be the equivalent of a disused shopping centre: sprawling but empty. Those who can make such a realm feel concrete and lived in, and alluring to visit for any length of time, are few and far between.

Thankfully, author Paul Taffinder is one of them, and with The Dream Murderer Cycle he has delivered what may well be the most exciting new entry into the genre in recent years.

A unique and potent combination of epic narrative with blood-soaked psychology, The Dream Murderer Cycle is a gripping trilogy of novels set in Earth’s far future that explore the depths and limits of human possibility.

The first two books in the series—Murderer of Dreams and Betrayer of Dreams—are already published, through Xiphax Press, with the concluding instalment, Mistress of Dreams, set for publication next month.

And after reading the first two books, you’ll be screaming for the conclusion as Paul Taffinder—a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy literature—has clearly absorbed all that makes such visionary science fantasy works as Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth series and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series so great, and then pressed his own stamp upon it.

The back story for the series, as depicted at the beginning of Murderer of Dreams, is that the Earth suffers an apocalyptic event in the year 2084 when a comet, Echrexar, strikes down, annihilating almost all of humanity.

Those who survive have done so by taking shelter underground. This includes a few thousand Immortals—individuals who had been enhanced by nanotechnology prior to the strike so that, barring accidents, they would live forever, exempt from the ravages of time.

We then shoot forward 1,890 years, where the remaining humans, now having re-established themselves upon the face of the earth, have descended into a new Dark Age marked by deadly feuding and crippling superstition, with Echrexar—the ‘Murderer of Dreams’—raised to the ranks of godhood.

The Dream Murderer Cycle by Paul Taffinder grabs you from the very start, introducing in Murderer of Dreams a post-apocalyptic society still deeply impacted by a comet strike some 18 centuries before.

Only a few Immortals remember what life was once like before they had to seek refuge at Svalbard—a real building dug into the permafrost of the Arctic Circle and (fittingly, given the trilogy’s premise) used as a global seed bank—but the burden of unending life has left most in an existential cul-de-sac and state of ennui, no longer caring what becomes of civilisation.

Eslin is, however,  different. A perpetual 25-year-old, she harbours the desire to resurrect humanity to its former heights.

On humanity’s last redoubt, a continent called ‘Kiangsu Realm’, she serves one of the feudal lords as spymaster, aiding in his endless internecine squabbles for power.

To conceal her true identity, she goes by the name of ‘Skava’ in an attempt to protect herself from fellow Immortals—who do not share her ambition for restoration, and who would gladly kill her to maintain the status quo—and the keepers of the Faith, who themselves lust for control.

Chief among these are the assassin Kesmet and the brutal Hunters of Heretics, who pursue her through deep forests and high mountains, constantly threatening her life, be it with poison or a crossbow bolt.

Taffinder does an excellent job of keeping the story moving forward while filling us in on the ancient lore and political power-play, where conflicting ambitions between the nobles and their assassins, and the ‘exarchs of the Faith’—the ‘Archivists’—aided by the dream wanderers who can foretell the future, keep the realm in a violent and unsettled fever.

In book two, Betrayer of Dreams, the situation becomes more desperate as Eslin must hold off her enemies while the realm descends into chaos following the assassination of one of the rulers.

At the same time, she seeks the ancient Temple of Cise Hook, a labyrinthine underground structure that is said to hold archaic secrets with the power to change the future of the world.

And with book three, Mistress of Dreams, all-out war might bring triumph or disaster for Eslin’s plans to reunite humanity once and for all.

Betrayer of Dreams is the second book in The Dream Murderer Cycle and sees anti-hero Eslin’s plans to reunite humanity threatened on all sides.

What impresses most about The Dream Murderer Cycle is how vivid and detailed the world is, both externally with the thoughtful descriptions of the landscape (aided by accompanying maps) and various strata of society and, internally, with the motivations and fears of the principal characters.

In combination they more than do justice to the big thematic hooks of the series, such as the meaning of true leadership, finding purpose, and whether to act or remain passive.

Set upon a resplendently decorated stage, the players act out a psychodrama of sorts, addressing relatable issues such as the price of success, the lessons of failure, and the appetites for power through their interactions and varying drives.

Some, for instance, seek power for their own benefit or that of localised communities but it is clear that such a blinkered view will never see humanity rise again.

The fact these psychological states and human truths are explored so thoroughly is undoubtedly because of the author’s background.

To give him his proper title, Dr Paul Taffinder is one of the UK’s most-respected psychologists and business consultants, with a raft of bestselling business books to his name and decades of experience helping companies manage large-scale change and CEO-led transformation.

This vast understanding of the field brings a level of authenticity, and even instruction, to the books that other novelists would be unlikely to pull off.

Seen in this way, the anti-hero Eslin is the vehicle to explore the point and necessity of purpose, vision and leadership in a difficult world.

Yet she is far more than a cypher, being a fully fleshed character with her own hopes and dreams, worries and dilemmas. She must make increasingly challenging decisions as the story progresses and it is fascinating to see how she evolves as she comes closer to stepping away from the protection of the shadows.

And while the novels have that deeper level to them, they can as easily be enjoyed as an action-packed saga, conveyed masterfully through Taffinder’s eloquent prose which draws you in from the get-go, as evidenced from this early passage:

Skava liked snow. She loved its purity, the perfection of gentle undulations, the way it made everything easier on the eye, like a white velvet that smoothed angles into curves and edges into unbroken, limitless horizons. It was new. And the world was new. And filled with possibilities.

I love the fact that Eslin/Skava is such a complex and potent character, and especially so given that she is female. The science fiction and fantasy genres have not always presented good representations of women, but this is not a problem here.

She is a true leader, having to be unsentimental about those who are lost in the conquest but equally willing to take care of those still with her and not forgetting her femininity or desires.

I also enjoyed the way that the author tells the story from the points of view of different characters. In this way, for instance, we flip from Skava to her nemesis Kesmet, to get a better insight into what is happening, why it is so, and all the time feeling that sense of peril and jeopardy ramp up.

You’ll come away from The Dream Murder Cycle trilogy, built as it is upon both current and timeless concerns, thoroughly entertained, informed and inspired.

Fans of the genre will lap it up, but those who appreciate human stories of struggle and triumph will also find the series deeply rewarding.

As such, if you only read one sci-fantasy trilogy, read this one.

Murderer of Dreams (Book One of The Dream Murderer Cycle) and Betrayer of Dreams (Book Two of The Dream Murderer Cycle) by Paul Taffinder are published through Xiphax Press and are available now on Amazon in paperback and eBook formats, priced £12.99 and £6.99 respectively. Mistress of Dreams (Book Three of The Dream Murderer Cycle) will be published in August 202

For more information, visit the author’s website, www.dreammurderer.com or follow him on Twitter at @XiphaxP and Instagram at @xiphax_press.

Q&A INTERVIEW WITH PAUL TAFFINDER

With the release of The Dream Murderer Cycle, author Paul Taffinder has fulfilled a literary ambition stretching back more than 30 years. As reviewer Gwyneth Rees reports, it’s certainly been worth the wait but why does science fantasy hold such an attraction to Paul, and what interests him most about the themes he explores in his new series? We spoke with him to find out.

Q. You are a respected psychologist with a CEO consultancy and several bestselling business books under your belt. How have you come to write sci-fi/fantasy fiction? 

A. My ambition since I was four years old was to be an author—I used to pretend I could write longhand. When I was nine, I wrote my first full length novel, a detective story called ‘Dodge’. At 10, I used my mother’s old Olivetti typewriter to learn to type and create more full-length novels. I guess I was learning how to be a writer.

Probably it stems from an overactive imagination and then a zeal to turn musings into something more permanent: i.e., books. I adore the power and magic of the written word—it expresses human emotion and aspiration and can move people to extraordinary feats. I have always loved reading: from the classics of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars to military history, science, astronomy, classical civilization—you name it. Sci-fi and fantasy gripped me early on because it can offer perspectives and possibilities that other genres cannot: what might the future look like? What will people do in the future? How are we different from other intelligent creatures? What is the real nature of being human, conscious, intelligent, emotional? It reminds me of the great oral works of civilization, like The Iliad and The Odyssey. People are ever-present, engaged in the business of love, war, relationships and death … but the gods are everywhere, too. For the Greeks, the ubiquity of the gods was real; from our perspective we can also see these fabulous stories as part fantasy.   

Q. What was the biggest adjustment challenge you faced in writing fiction after writing business books? 

A. The mindset for writing business books is all about rationality, logic, value and evidence. Creating fiction is about creativity, emotion, inspiration and imagination. Spending my career in business tamped down my creativity as a wordsmith, as did completing a masters’ degree and PhD! Academic discipline makes writing rigorous and factual. As I look back, it’s not a surprise that I wrote and had published four business books on leadership and organisational transformation first, before really returning to a focus on fiction—it was an outlet for creativity, even if tempered by commercial logic. Swapping from the mindset of business writing to fiction is a big adjustment because in fiction you draw so much on your emotional core. You create characters you love (especially villains) and pour yourself into them, exploring every facet of yourself and other people. It’s easy for me to get lost in the world I create.

Q. The seeds of your trilogy stretch back some 30 years. How has the story changed between that initial iteration and the books that have been published? 

A. I began a fantasy series when I was 19. Worked out the setting, drew the maps myself, created the society in detail and wrote a book, which was like the curate’s egg—good in part. Then I sat on it, posting it to publishers and getting the usual rejections. My career as a psychologist, strategy consultant and business book writer took precedence and, because I was successful, it absorbed me fully. 

Thirty years later I decided on a major re-write, with a completely different angle: the setting became our world recovering from a massive comet strike, part sci-fi, part fantasy, part real. Eslin, the protagonist (or perhaps anti-hero), is from our own current world, gifted immortality at age 5 by new nanotech just prior to the cataclysm. The story jumps 1,890 years after the disaster. In this new Dark Age of dream wanderers who foretell the future, fanatics of the Faith and assassins, Eslin, now known as Skava, is a spymaster in a febrile empire of internecine clans. The current fantasy The Dream Murderer Cycle is the result of that writing effort. 

Q. What does your trilogy teach about real-world leadership? 

A. Real leaders are not people who want to be liked or want everyone to love each other. Real leaders want others to follow them and the best are able to demonstrate deep conviction in the goals they pursue. Frequently, leaders are self-obsessed, utterly committed to an aim and not above being ruthless when they have to be. This is Eslin, the protagonist—although she leads in concealed, shadowy ways as well as directly in the relationships she has with her squad and with her noble clan. In the Dream Murderer trilogy, many leaders put on an act or present themselves in ways that will have the most powerful effect on others. Being willing to act is a key requirement of leadership—not all the time, but when it counts; when you need to show confidence under threat, belief when the outcome seems unlikely, or show belief in others who doubt themselves. Great leaders are great orators: they understand the power of language, influence and inspiration. 

Paul Taffinder’s epic The Dream Murderer Cycle concludes with the soon-to-be-released Mistress of Dreams. Will Eslin cement her leadership, or will the remains of civilisation continue its slow collapse into extinction?

Q. While a work of science fantasy, you keep one foot in the real world. Can you explain the real-world concepts and concerns you explore in your novels? 

A. The world of the Dream Murderer Cycle is our own world, shattered by a comet strike. I researched in detail what might happen, what the devastation would be like and how people might survive. Although this part of the story occupies only the prologue, its impact resonates through the whole trilogy—the global burning when pulverized matter from the comet strike hurtles back to the ground as superheated glass ejecta, how long buildings would survive before crumbling (40-150 years), what vast landslips would do to the oceans and the geography of the continents and, achingly, what detritus of civilisation would be scattered over the surface of the planet. The people who survive the initial impacts would only do so underground. The following decade or more would bring a layer of ash and thick water vapour forming impenetrable cloud cover, blocking out the sun. One band of survivors in the book has sought refuge at Svalbard on Spitzbergen in the Arctic Circle. Svalbard is a real refuge, dedicated to the preservation of 12,000 years of seeds used in farming. The refuge is covered by permafrost and is 130 metres above sea level— critical factors for human survival in a planet-wide comet strike.

I also explore the development of religion after a catastrophe. How does science co-exist, if at all? Can scientific knowledge be preserved and handed down to the next generation if all modern energy sources are no longer viable? All these ideas are in the background of the storyline, like ghostly echoes of our current world. What you read is the strangeness of an alien world, shot through by the dreamlike quality of a long-distant past.

Dreams are a critical element of the book. Do they foretell the future? The Exarchs of the Faith believe fervently that dreams cross the veil between the mortal world and that of the gods. In dreams, properly interpreted, are the intentions, warnings and foretellings of the gods. But are the gods even real? Or are they simply the manifestation of human emotion and faulty intellect, desperately seeking answers about the joys and cruelty of the cosmos?

Q. The trilogy’s protagonist, Eslin, is immortal. Why does the concept of immortality interest you as an author? 

A. For as long as humans have walked the earth, we have wondered why we cannot live forever. Life seems short and we rage against ageing, as the Roman philosopher Seneca pondered 2,000 years ago. My starting point was, ‘What if only a few ordinary people in a recovering world were immortals? Would they be powerful? Would they actively intervene? Or would they be fearful of being treated as gods—to be worshipped one moment and torn down the next?’ After all, mortals are ever in awe of gods, but equally curse them for misfortune. Immortals would probably try to hide in plain sight or withdraw. That idea brought me to the reality of living for hundreds of years—what would eventuate would be utter despair, at times. In short, immortal emotion would be identical to ordinary emotion, but on a huge timescale. How do immortals cope, or do they succumb to the ennui and take their own lives?

Q. The future world you portray seems a much harsher, crueller world than the one we live in today. If there was an apocalyptic event, how would we need to respond to save civilisation? 

A. There are some immediate imperatives for civilization to survive—and then longer-term challenges. Coming through the initial disaster, the highest priority is food production. Currently, the world has a maximum of two years food surplus. Seems quite good, but most of it would be burned or spoiled by flood waters. If a refuge had stored two years supply, the greenhouse cloud cover resulting from a comet strike would prevent crop farming outside. Even if a billion people survived the impact (and there are four impacts from the comet in the book), the vast majority would starve. You need indoor hydroponics and you need a stable, long-lasting fuel source—probably nuclear. Assuming you can maintain the technology (a very difficult task without global supply chains and fine-tuned technical assets like precision manufacturing), the preservation of knowledge, especially science, is vital. Equally important is population gene diversity. Small groups of survivors are prone to population bottlenecks or sudden outbreaks of killer viruses—witness COVID. They would need to find other communities, even distant, in order to build thriving populations.

Recovery for civilization could be very lengthy indeed and the subsequent culture very different to what we expect.

Q. Both sci-fi and fantasy literature tend to be looked down upon by critics. What are your views on this? 

A. It has always surprised me, but I realised when I got deeper into psychology that personality makes a big difference. Some people are highly imaginative dreamers, open to ideas, who love intellectual stimulation—they are often the readers of sci-fi/fantasy. Other people are much more on the pragmatic ‘I-have-to-touch-and-feel-it-to-believe-it’ continuum. They prefer stories that are real-world and grounded in the here-and-now. That said, the popularity of Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Witcher and Dune tells me that many millions of people love the genre—probably some of the critics are closet aficionados. Certainly, for me, sci-fi/fantasy at its best is the equal of the great works of literature—notably Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, examining what it means to be both human, male and female. Jack Vance, C.J. Cherryh and Steven Erikson are some of the great authors of the genre.

Q. What, in your opinion, is the key to writing gripping sci-fi/fantasy fiction?

A. Please and surprise the reader. Give them believable detail that fascinates and intrigues but is sufficiently alien to astonish or catch the emotions off-guard. The idea of a world being alien doesn’t mean it has to be populated by three-headed monsters or magic; what’s needed are strange rituals, customs and beliefs and, in the case of The Dream Murderer Cycle, a sense that the gods are close but never seen. Sci-fi/fantasy is still, essentially, about people: their motives, relationships, ambitions and petty foibles. It also helps if sci-fi/fantasy has mystery (like any other good novel) to lure readers down dead-ends or to the edge of a precipice, never sure what will happen next or what the resolution to the story will be. 

Q. What can readers expect next from you?

A. A couple more novels in the Dream Murderer series. Fans insist that there is so much more that they want to hear about Eslin and her adventures in Kiangsu Realm. On the business front, I am developing book concepts on the challenges of CEO leadership—what it’s like to be the lonely individual on high, what goes right and what the landmines are. 

Further, I am intrigued by the ‘business’ of space exploration. It used to be that governments were alone in having the huge capital expenditure needed to get people off planet. Nowadays, billionaire entrepreneurs are leading the way with innovative rocket and guidance technology—notably Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. My questions are thus: how will the new space entrepreneurs tackle new worlds? Will they establish cities in earth orbit, colonize Mars and name cities after themselves? Will governments follow? Will it be a new age of colonization? 

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