Metronome by Oliver Langmead

8/10 A fun and dreamy reading experience

Metronome is Oliver Langmead’s second novel, following his debut Dark Star, a Guardian Best Book of 2015. It is quest novel with a distinct steampunk theme, the titular Metronome being an airship so called due to the regular ticking sound it makes. The story moves fluidly in and out of the real and dream worlds and I loved that, in the dreamworld, death is an awakening.

The man at the centre of this story, and through whose eyes we view events, is Will Manderley, a former musician now residing within an Edinburgh care home, an ex-sailor still feeling wanderlust and the lure of the open sea, plagued not only by arthritis but also by remorse and regret. The source of said remorse and regret being his wife and daughter, and I found his and their backstory, told in flashbacks, to be most poignant and the highlight of the novel.

The novel’s other focus falls on the Sleepwalkers, dream warriors hunting the nightmares which haunt sleeping minds. They traverse the connected dreamworlds but one Sleepwalker has gone rogue, abandoning her oath to protect the dreamscapes, threatening to unleash a nightmare older than man.

The lives of the Sleepwalkers and Will Manderley entwine and Will must regain the use of his hands and play the violin again. The dreamworld is mapped with music and one of Will’s forgotten compositions holds the key to an ancient secret.

The story I believe is neatly encapsulated in these words uttered by Callister, the Metronome shipwright: “These days I have the pleasure of putting together great flying boats in the sky so that mad captains can go chasing bits of sheet music across half of bloody dreaming.” It’s not an easy book to describe but this paragraph I think does it nicely.

I liked Metronome from the outset. Langmead was not an author I was familiar with prior to reading and the trepidation that one feels when reading an unknown disappeared within the first chapter, such was my positive reaction to the novel. Initially I was a little concerned about how the author would use the dreamworld. The power of  dreams is absolute, literally anything can happen and this allows the author the opportunity to do whatever they wish - deux ex machina on tap if you like. So I feel it is vital that rules are established that prevent this in the dreamworld otherwise there will be no tension. And in the main Langmead avoids this.

I liked the mixture of dreams, music, and Sleepwalkers. I thought it an exciting framework for a fantasy story and while I do find many aging musicians a mite tragic (think Creme Brulee from A League of Gentlemen) it was important that I warm to the book’s lead Manderlay. And I did. He was a charming character and one whose early life I was eager to read about. I wanted to know how this care home resident would find himself in places where Sleepwalkers, nightmares and dreamworlds existed.

There are many influences to be found driving the narrative, ranging from Escher to the The Tower of Babel, Jazz to art, and this made for a rich texture. As we board the Metronome the story really takes off. Langmead’s writing is imaginative, with a narrative that is at times poetic and I greatly enjoyed visiting the wonderfully grey city of Binary, and seeing the wonders of Babel. There was an ease to the reading of this book. I felt comfortable within its pages and when Will uses his music to create a map which will allow the airship Metronome to fly to the centre of Solomon’s Eye and rescue a stranded crew, we rush headlong to an exciting denouement.

I enjoyed Metronome, it was a fun and dreamy reading experience which I found reminiscent of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, in feel.

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