Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Saya Hokage can't sleep. It's not in the way that people who sleep badly use the term either – she's been a complete insomniac for months, utterly unable to get any rest. All of that changes one day in the school infirmary when a girl named Hitsuji Konparu flops down on the bed beside Saya, instantly putting her to sleep. In her dreams, Saya is in mutual love with Hitsuji as the two fight sleep-eating monsters, and Saya soon learns that the dream was not as intangible as most dreams are. The two girls are part of a group known as Sleepwalkers, and along the three others, their job is to fight monsters known as Suiju, because if they don't, no one will ever be able to sleep again.
If you had to read Shakespeare's Macbeth in school (or you just have the good taste to enjoy that particular play), you may remember the line in Act 2, Scene 2: “Sleep no more! Macbeth hath murdered sleep!” Now substitute “suiju” for “Macbeth” and you have a fairly good approximation of the plot of Iori Miyazawa's Side-by-Side Dreamers, a lightly yuri fantasy novel that is the first of two projected releases from the author by JNovel-Club. I say “lightly yuri” because while there is an f/f romance present in the text, with the implication of another, neither plays nearly as large a role in the story as yuri fans might like, with the payoff of the Saya/Hitsuji relationship feel a bit like too little, too late. That it is treated as almost incidental to the rest of the plot can be seen as how normal it's viewed as, which is nice, but it almost feels more like a tease than anything and probably shouldn't be the reason you pick up the book.
Why Side-by-Side Dreamers is worth reading is the interesting plotline that seems to reference numerous other dream-based works and the very visual writing. Analytically-minded readers will likely spot references to Paprika and even The Men Who Stare at Goats, but none of that would have worked without Miyazawa's ability to write dreams as interesting landscapes to explore rather than that annoying thing your friend insists on telling you about. This is at least in part because Saya, Hitsuji, and the other three girls are all Sleepwalkers, people able to dream lucidly and together if they all lay down to sleep on the same bed. (At one point the girls note that they're all female and wonder if there's an all-boy Sleepwalker group, which a couple of them find very enticing.) This ability is to be used to combat monsters known as “suiju,” written with the characters for “sleep” and “beast.” The suiju prey on human sleep, and the fact that at the beginning of the novel Saya is unable to get any sleep is because she's been bitten by a suiju. The fact that she survived so long as an insomniac, however, means that she's a Neversleeper, a special type of Sleepwalker who is unusually strong against suiju. Thus although she has more trouble using her basic Sleepwalker abilities in Nightland (dreams; Dayland is the waking world), she's still invaluable in that she can see the suiju more clearly than any of the others and is the only one who can see them in Dayland, should they sneak over. Although it is never explicitly said, her Neversleeper status may also be the reason she and Hitsuji have such a close bond – Hitsuji is a Blanket, a person with the power to put anyone to sleep when she herself drops off. She can control this to a degree, but that makes her less a threat to the suiju than even she realizes, something explored as the novel enters its latter half.
The slow connection between Saya's powers, suiju, and Hitsuji's ability forms the basis for the plot, and it is a very gradual process, making the book feel longer than it is. In some cases, such as Miyazawa's vivid descriptions of the various dreams the girls move through, that's a blessing, but strictly speaking in plot progression terms it can feel a bit like a curse. The book drags for much of the first half while Saya learns how to use her powers and an almost monster-of-the-chapter format takes over. (While that may not be strictly true, that's the impression it gives.) This is where the lack of real substance to the interpersonal relationships becomes a detriment to the story, making things feel a bit stagnant.
Fortunately it's a lovely stagnancy, so if you don't need your novels plot or character driven and can just enjoy the prose, this may be less of an issue. Translator Sean McCann definitely deserves some of the credit here, not just for the smooth readability of the text, but for some very good word choices that help convey what Miyazawa is saying. Among these the use of the word “airy” for Hitsuji's curls is a particular stand-out – it not only gives us the sense that these are loose wavy curls rather than tight, dense ones, but it also helps to indicate Hitsuji's personality, which might be described similarly. In another case, an exchange between the girls over whether or not Saya will call Hitsuji by her family or given name; Saya says that she's not going to be “like some American” and be too friendly too soon, and when the other girls point out that her actions towards Hitsuji could be seen as over-friendly, the response it that she'd get shot or sued if they were in America. This exchange very nicely captures stereotypes without sounding mean or anti-anyone; less careful word choice could have turned a funny conversation into something darker.
Side-by-Side Dreamers is a firmly middle ground light novel. Although beautifully written in terms of description and translation, it moves a little too slowly and doesn't quite develop everything it ought to before coming to what feels like an abrupt conclusion. It's an interesting work, but one that doesn't quite do enough with its plot to be truly good.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
+ Beautiful descriptive writing with a good translation, dreams are engaging, second half moves along at a good pace
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