The Rest Is Illusion (Valley Books), Eric Arvin
Rating: 5 “Valley” Stars
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: LGBT Fiction
Tags: Contemporary, With Fantasy, College, Coming of Age, Friendship
Magical realism meets coming of age as four Verona College students are thrown together by choice as well as circumstance. When their lives and loves are threatened by blackmail and violence, they respond by using all the means at their disposal—including some they aren’t even aware they possess. But will that be enough to prevent tragedy or even death? Eric Arvin’s first novel is once again available, ready to set your heart racing and your mind reeling.
Note: Second Edition – this is a previously published work.
If you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time you know I’ve been a huge fan of the Valley series for awhile. Not just the series, but of the author as well. Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men, Azrael and the Light Bringer, and Woke Up In A Strange Place rank at the top as three of the best books I’ve ever read – in any genre. I’ve owned the first edition of The Rest Is Illusion for quite some time but hadn’t read it. When I found out it was being re-released I held off to read the second edition, published through Wilde City Press. It was worth the wait.
If you’ve read the other books in the series you’re already familiar with Verona College. In a sense anyway. In Mingled Destinies and Azrael the reader is on the outside looking in. In The Rest Is Illusion, you’re taken inside the university and are introduced to some pretty unique characters.
First, there’s Dashel. Dashel is a bright young man who was once a track star. He had to walk away from sports when he discovered that he’d inherited an illness from his late father. The illness is kept secret from those he’s close to until he’s forced to reveal it. Dash is gay and doesn’t care much who knows about it. I adored Dashel almost from the first page. That love was cemented as the story played out.
Dash, on top of being ill, has vivid dreams that take him places that seem all too real. Unfortunately, he wakes up before he’s able to see how the dreams end. He assumes the dreams are as a result of his illness, but Verona College is a magical place. Not just in Dash’s dreams, but it becomes evident by other things that occur in the story. The magic is everywhere, though only a few believe it or even attempt to understand it. If you read this, pay close attention to Dash’s dreams. They give an idea of what’s to come later.
Dash was blessed in the way of living and decency. Honesty. The kind of blessed existence that did not require dealing with monetary fortunes or misfortunes. His was a life… devoid of misplaced ambitions.
Then there’s Ashley, Dash’s roommate and best friend. He’s not like others at the university but he doesn’t care what others think. He’s albino and he plays it up by wearing brightly colored contacts and dying his hair to match. Ashley is amazing and a very good friend to Dash. Others kinda fear him, but not Dash.
Ashley was so at ease, so ever-pleasant. He was a pure soul, Dash thought. So pure that at birth, a physical manifestation of love had permeated his flesh, making him forever bright and ethereal. He was otherworldly in every discernible way.
Sarah is also a good friend to both Dash and Ashley. Sarah has long held on to a crush for Dash, but that abated somewhat when she discovered he was gay. It didn’t go away completely, but she knew she didn’t stand a chance with the man, so she didn’t pine over him as she had before. Sarah and Ashley, Dash’s two closest friends, also develop a close relationship of their own.
Sarah is the daughter of a very strict preacher. He’s never cared to see Sarah for the girl she is. All he cares about is her following his strict guidelines and not embarrassing him in front of his congregation or society in general. I felt a lot of sympathy for Sarah. While I didn’t grow up the daughter of a pastor, I grew up in a very strict, religious household and was expected to always act a certain way so as not to cause shame or embarrassment to one of my parents. As an adult, I’m still often pulled into that, though (like Sarah eventually does in the story) I finally took a stand. Her father reminded me entirely too much of people I know in my life even now. She feared him and it didn’t take much to see why.
Back in her room, Sarah sat on her bed with her hands folded in her lap. Her shoulders drooped as she thought of her father, of eyes she never saw because she was too frightened to peer into them.
Tony is a closeted football star. He has spent his entire life hiding who he really is from his family, his peers, from everyone. He’s convinced that if he admits he’s gay that he’ll lose everything he has and become an outcast. He plays the part of the macho, straight, jock but he’s not a jerk about it. He gets along with everyone as he plays that part. Too often you see closeted jocks acting homophobic to cover who they are. That was definitely not the case with Tony. He sees something in Dash that he really wants to explore but he’s too uncertain and insecure to pursue it.
He would do as his buddies and fellow ballplayers would do. He would do as his parents and coaches expected him to do. When he was older, he would marry and learn to love his wife, and they would raise children together….. His desires for other men, for their sheer maleness, would dissipate in time. He assured himself it was so.
Wilder is a politician’s son. He comes from wealth and privilege and lets everyone know it. He’s the villain of The Rest Is Illusion and you can’t help but despise him almost from the onset. He’s pure evil. Instead of trying to be a decent person, he resorts to knocking others down in order to show who has the power – Wilder. Blackmail is his power. He’ll see someone he wants to destroy and doesn’t stop until he accomplishes putting them in what he considers their place. He’s already gotten to Dashel and others, but he sets his sights on Tony. His father’s son, he goes to great lengths to destroy others because that’s all he’s been taught. For about a half second I felt a twinge of sympathy for Wilder. He was the product of his raising, as we say down South. That sympathy, like I said, only lasted a brief moment before I got over it.
Wilder’s father had always taught him to take advantage when dealing with people like Dash. That’s what they’re for. That was their function. They were the feed in the trough and then the refuse in the gutter. Nothing more. There was nothing redemptive about being “nice.” Being nice, being truthful, was for the kind who were not willing to accept the plain obviousness of life. There isn’t anything more. One should take what he can.
There are other characters who make up the story, but the ones above are the key players.
Dashel is battling with the secret of his illness. He knows he needs to tell Ashley and Sarah, but he can’t bring himself to do it until he’s forced to. Using Independent Study as his excuse for no longer doing things he did before (like track), his friends believe that he’s so invested in getting his paper written that it’s what’s pulled him away from other things. Oh, he’s still there as a friend, but he’s no longer involved in activities he’d been involved in before.
Dash notices Wilder setting his sights on Tony. He knows he needs to warn the other man, but how can he do it without telling his own secrets? Wilder had humiliated Dash in a horrific way and Dash knows that if Tony isn’t made aware of the type of person Wilder is he’ll be pulled down as well. When he finally works up the courage, he’s still unable to stop what happens later. This sets the tone for the rest of the story.
Others begin to see the magic of the university and the land it sits on when the weather takes an odd turn. One day it’s snowing hard and the next the snow is melting (too) quickly and the winds are all over the place. Whatever is going on affects everyone at Verona, though most don’t take the time to question it. Dash, Ashley and Sarah do. Dashel knows there’s more to what’s going on and he eventually gets the answers he seeks in his dreams. I can’t say more about that without giving away too much of the story.
Once Wilder gets to Tony he feels that he’s won yet again. He’s humiliated Dash, blackmailed a girl named Maggie, and now he has the big, popular jock (Tony) where he wants him. In a sense he does win, but with that victory comes consequences. You know the saying about the winds of change? That’s a good phrase to use to describe what happens to Wilder and the others.
After Wilder puts Tony in a compromising position, Tony reaches out to Dash, who had tried very hard to warn him before everything went down. Unfortunately, too much alcohol at a frat party placed him right where Wilder wanted him to be. Dash and Tony become friends of sorts, though Tony still keeps his secret – that he’s gay. Not with Dash, obviously, but with the rest of the university. Only when things really come to a head is Tony forced to make a decision that could either destroy him or help him to be the person he was born to be.
If you’ve read the other books in this series you know that the woods and river are very important. In this story we have the Old Lady, a large, old tree that’s close to dying. The Old Lady plays a large part in pretty much everything that takes place with Dashel and the others in his close circle. It also plays a part with Wilder. I admit to getting a bit too excited a couple of times when Wilder was standing under the tree as the ice started to melt. 🙂 That probably makes me a bad person, but if you read about Wilder you’ll know exactly why I was hoping he wouldn’t get out of the way in time.
The Rest Is Illusion is a contemporary story but it also has fantasy elements, though not as prominent as they are in Mingled Destinies and Azrael. A lot of things happen that can’t be explained. Because I’ve read the other books, I know where the magic is coming from. Those who haven’t might not get it. That’s okay, though, because I can’t imagine anyone reading this series and not loving it as much as I did – all three books.
This is a story about friendship, but it’s also so much more. It’s about finding forgiveness and gaining the inner strength to stand up for those who’ve been wronged. Sometimes it’s the person being wronged who takes the stand. Sometimes it’s others doing it for them. Dash, Ashley, Sarah, Tony and Wilder are all connected and it takes true friendship and acceptance in order for everything to happen the way it should. Don’t take that to mean that I ended this liking Wilder even a little bit. I didn’t. I wanted to see him suffer as much as he’d made others suffer. I said above that he’s pure evil. I didn’t see that change, even when everything played out in the finale.
I found myself smiling a lot while reading this but I also shed a few tears. I can’t say why, but the author has a way of bringing out the feels when it comes to beloved characters. He did it brilliantly here.
Overall, I loved this book every bit as much as I loved all the books I’ve read by this author. I felt like I was coming home in a way, even though The Rest Is Illusion was written long before the other two in the series. There’s something about the Valley that has sucked me in from the first page I read of Mingled Destinies. While it’s not always a happy place, the characters and their stories will have you feeling like you’re right there with them. That, I’ve always said, is the sign of a damn good author. When you’re so invested in the world they create that you feel like you’re coming home again when you’re allowed to venture back there. I now want to go back and reread the others. So many things that happened in The Rest Is Illusion reminded me of why the Valley is such a special place.
Don’t take anything I’ve said to mean that you need to read the other books first. You definitely don’t and it might actually be better if you start with this one. While they’re all connected, they aren’t. You’d have to read the series to see what I mean.
I’ve always had a difficult time reviewing Eric Arvin’s books. I never feel as if I can adequately convey my thoughts and feelings. The Rest Is Illusion is no different. This was Eric’s first published book and I have to say that I regret not reading it before now. Once again, he’s brilliantly taken the readers into a wonderful world that only he could create. I absolutely loved it and can’t recommend it enough. However, it’s not (really) a gay romance and it’s not overly light. Sure, you’ll fall in love with the characters like I did, but there’s so much more to it than what the blurb says or what I’ve listed here.
Another beautifully written story by one of my favorite authors.