The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming by Michelle Browne
Janelle Cohen, who is training to become an electrician in her underground city, comes home from work with her stomach and arm badly cut and tells her father that she was attacked by a baby dragon. He is skeptical, but she shows him the claw she severed from the beast in hopes of proving her tale. He is still disbelieving. He examines her wounds and discovers that she is in dire need of treatment, so he rushes her to the clinic near their home.
After painful stitches, with the treatment staff continually accusing her of being a gang member, Janelle finds that several other young people have recently been treated for similar injuries. One nurse mused that the weapon used upon Janelle was clearly meant to tear her apart. No amount of argument by Janelle could convince her or the other medical staff that she’d never belonged in a gang.
When Janelle took her friends to see the corpse of the dragon (with her girlfriend Chloe expressing doubt that the dragon actually existed), there is nothing left but dust. As she tries to convince the group of the truth of her story, she removes the bloody claw from her pocket and throws it at them. It disintegrates into Dust before their eyes.
Dust in the world of the Underlighters is a dangerous substance. It has taken over the land Above, blocking out the sun. Those who breathe Dust for an extended time lose their minds, hallucinating their way into complete insanity. It is only safe below ground, in the depths of the tunnels. The higher Up one gets, the greater risk one takes of inhaling Dust or of becoming one of the Lost, as happened to Janelle’s mother so many years ago after she went Up in search of her sister. The Lost wander further and further, breathing the Dust until they become disoriented, unable to find their way home, eventually dying from Dust exposure or worse.
The Crows try to protect the citizens, but not everyone can be protected. Even though it is safer now than it was in the days when Janelle’s mother disappeared, strange things are happening. The Dust seems to be able to take the form of people’s nightmares. Janelle and her girlfriend, Chloe, see a spider-dog in one of the tunnels. Children begin to disappear from their homes, leaving no evidence of where they’ve gone or of who might have taken them.
Two of Janelle’s friends become engaged and Janelle, Chloe, Jay, and Adrian go Up to see if they can salvage something nice for the wedding. They go past the level they are approved to visit, hoping to find an area less picked over. What they find is pure horror. As the crisis escalates, Chloe falls completely apart, Jay has seemingly vanished with Adrian searching for her, leaving Janelle to fight off a horde of monsters, hoping to keep them at bay until help arrives.
When the Crows find her, they are impressed with Janelle’s response to the crisis, and later with Jay and Adrian. Janelle finds herself increasingly drawn to the leaders of the Crows, Una and Nathu. They are married to each other, but both seem to express an interest in Janelle. Chloe is violently jealous and acts out whenever she can, in spite of the fact that Nathu is also the leader of the city, and the son of the Mayor.
In spite of this drama, Janelle joins the Crows and works to discover the mystery of the Dust.
Amid disappearances, kidnappings, and betrayal, Janelle discovers her personal strengths and learns to believe in her own power as well her ability to love and be loved by others.
Michelle Browne has created a unique blend of fantasy for lovers of the paranormal or fantasy genres. There is a flavor of the apocalyptic fantasy about it, but without the dreary, “woe is me, what a crappy world we have” attitude that is so often found in that genre.
This novel is full of real emotion – it wrings tears from the reader as Janelle writes about her experiences in her journal. She has lost her mother; she loses friends; she has disagreements with her father. Her lover is difficult at best; and a real trial at worst. She lives a regular life amid the tunnels far below what was once the regular world. At the same time, she has powers of which she is never aware.
The author has created an underground city that becomes incredibly real. The tunnels sound warm and homey, even to a claustrophobic reader such as me. The Dust is scary; the reader can feel it and its effects. The monsters are real. Watch out, you may find yourself wondering about all the Dust around you once you’ve finished this novel.