‘If you die in your dreams, you die in real life. Or so say the proverbial old wives, slumber party legends, and A Nightmare On Elm Street.’
For the last three months, Ashling Michelle Campbell has been having the same dream every time she falls asleep.
She’s in a crowd of people, straining to get closer to a stage where a group of prisoners are waiting to be sentenced. The pushing and shoving ceases as the sea of people parts, collectively getting to their knees to worship at the feet of the monstrous thing who walks down the makeshift aisle they’ve made: with a black, slimy mouth, curved claws and dead eyes, he’s so close yet so far from being human.
The disgusting humanoid says her name, and she’s terrified. How does he know who she is? But one of the prisoners gets dragged forward, and she has to deal with the shocking realisation that her future self is up on the stage.
As if that wasn’t hard enough to accept, she then has to watch her future self get thrown into the crowd and devoured. She is literally eaten alive before her very eyes, every single night.
After she wakes up, she breaks her dreamcatcher in frustration. It’s obviously not helping – if the damn thing worked, she wouldn’t still be having the nightmare! She tells her best friend Tate, but he’s Lakota and believes in their superstitions so he’s certain that she’s just made things much worse for herself. His fear makes Ash paranoid, and before going to bed that night she tapes the dreamcatcher back together, repairing it as well as she can.
It changes everything.
That night when she falls asleep, she wakes up and she IS future Ash. She’s no longer watching from the crowd: she’s experiencing the nightmare first hand. It’s even worse than it was before, because now she can feel their teeth and claws tearing through her skin. When she wakes up, she’s bleeding: the bite wound inflicted in the dream becomes real.
Ash is terrified. She tries so hard to stay awake all night, fighting the urge to sleep, but before long she’s going under. When she comes to on the stage, she realises she can remember everything that happened the night before. She’s completely aware that she’s in a dream, and she can manipulate everything going on around her. She frees the other prisoners – the enigmatic Gray Eyes (who we later learn is called Coop), Reyna, James and Cyrus – and they escape, heading down into the secret tunnels running beneath the town.
Meanwhile, in the waking world, Ash takes part in a sleep study at the local university. She confides in Dr. Dietz about the craziness of her dreams, and he suggests that she focus hard on the spot where the dream ended. If she can visualise the scene around her she should be able to jump back in where she left off, continuing the dream rather than reliving the beginning over and over again.
Due to the butterfly effect, everything Ash does in the present changes the course of the future. She wants to stop the monster getting in charge – he’s the Jumlin, the big bad in another Lakota legend that Tate introduces her to – but has no idea how to do this… Until she works out that the Jumlin is Walker Smith, the man running against her Aunt Lavaughn in the town’s mayoral election.
Ash embraces her role as a dreamwalker, constantly brainstorming ideas of how she can help save the town, even getting veritable genius Tate involved in her schemes. But when Aunt Lavaughn gets shot and killed outside her office, Ash goes back in time to make sure she won’t go to work that morning, inadvertently causing her mother to take Lavaughn’s place…
As well as dealing with her time hopping, Ash has all of the usual struggles of a teenage girl. Her mother decided to foster Nadette, a recently orphaned teenage girl, a few months ago, and the two constantly come to blows. To make matters worse Tate is completely infatuated with Nadette, ignoring Ash as soon as she flounces past. So much for best friendship!
And how can a girl care about getting good grades in chemistry when she’s so busy trying to save the world every night?
I can’t remember the last time I felt so invested in a story. Due to the non-chronological nature of the narrative, it’s impossible to clearly predict what’s going to happen. Every single time Ash jumped into the future I didn’t know what she was going to discover, and I was craving more information on how the town got into such a state. It’s fascinating to see how things rapidly change based on the actions in the present, and it made me deeply consider the way that the smallest thing could make the biggest difference to someone’s life.
Reading on became a compulsion. I started reading ‘Fifteen’ on the train on the way to London to see Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, and I continued reading in the breaks between sets, when I went to the bathroom, even while queuing to buy merch! I wouldn’t recommend reading ‘Fifteen’ if you’re planning on dipping in and out of a book: this is an immersive experience, and one that you need to commit yourself to wholeheartedly.
There are predictable bits: it was very obvious that Walker Smith was the Jumlin, and the eventual reveal of who Laughing Bear – the key to making all of his spawn immortal – was also not surprising in the slightest. But the things that I thought would happen didn’t: Tate and Ash kiss but their relationship never develops further than that, which means we don’t have to deal with the best friends becoming love interests trope, and at the end of the novel her mother is still dead because she doesn’t always find the time travel easy.
Ash’s struggle is very realistic. She isn’t too intimidated by the news that she’s a dreamwalker because she assumed that her dreams were taking her to the future – it was the only explanation that made sense. But she needs to stay on the ball constantly, flying under the radar as she intercepts her friends from the future and trying different outcomes each time to get to a more desirable conclusion to each night’s installment of the journey.
This is the most exciting dystopian I’ve ever read. Because the outcome seems avoidable, the quest to prevent it ramps up the tension and means you really root for the characters. I found myself flinching every time Ash made a faux pas and revealed herself to the people in the future, but the banter lacing most of her interactions had me giggling despite the fact that I felt very on edge.
The only reason I didn’t give it five stars is because at times it gets a little overwhelming. There are a few very rapid timeline changes that left me feeling dizzy, and they weren’t written in the clearest way. That, combined with the thinly veiled foreshadowing ruining the surprise of the twists, were the only two problems I had, but other than those this was a pretty perfect example of a dystopian.
If you don’t want to start a new series you’re in luck – ‘Fifteen’ works pretty well as a standalone (if you can deal with a couple of unanswered questions!). I’m definitely going to be reading on, though: I’d be an idiot to stop reading here!
If you’re thinking about starting a new series, look no further. You won’t be disappointed when you delve into this world.
I’m going to pick up the recently published ‘Sixteen’, second book in the Dreamwalker Diaries series, as soon as I can, because this was utterly gripping. I hope it’s a direct continuation, because even though this could work really well as a standalone I NEED answers. Will Ash be able to save her mother? Has she managed to save the future? Is the Jumlin threat wiped out for good? So many questions!