The second installment in Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable trilogy is a wild, clever, galaxy-spanning romp sure to delight fans of Victories Greater Than Death. Picking up where the first book left off, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak meets Anders’ beloved found family with quite a lot on their collective plates. They survived unimaginable dangers, but at what cost?
With much of the worldbuilding established in the first book—though she doesn’t miss any opportunities to deepen it satisfyingly here—Anders can delve into the business of how these teenagers actually navigate this universe. While Victories centered on Tina, Dreams hands the POV spotlights to Elza, her girlfriend, and Rachael, her best friend. We get “JoinerTalk” messages from Tina so we’re still inside her head a bit, which is wonderful because she’s a fantastic protagonist, but the other girls get to shine. This works really well, as all three of them have to confront the aftermath of “saving the day” and the complicated reality of what it means to live your dreams. Just because there are aliens, clones, and intergalactic technology none of them could have imagined as a kid doesn’t mean growing up gets any easier—in fact, they’ve got a whole set of new problems to balance on top of figuring out who they are.
Tina’s trying to define herself outside of the identity of the hero she was cloned from, but damn, it’s tough to be a pacifist in a military academy, especially when confronted with new and insidious dangers. This gets all the more complicated when the dissonance between who she is and who she was made from reaches a fever pitch, and Tina must face an impossible decision.
Elza is learning to be a princess, but in Anders’ evocation and reclamation of princesshood, the crown doesn’t fall into Elza’s lap. She has to navigate access to a devastating amount of knowledge, and the weight of the responsibility that comes with it. Meanwhile, Rachael finds herself pretty terribly off. She was instrumental to their last victory, but it came at the cost of her ability to create art, which had always been a core part of her and how she interacted with the world. It also means she’s plagued by unwanted visions of the Vayt—and to make matters worse, she finds her connection with her boyfriend Yiwei faltering.
Through it all, there’s a massively sinister threat looming—one that could mean the end of the universe as they know it.
Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak is a perfectly balanced YA space opera: the characters face higher stakes than ever, all while they’re trying to figure out relationships, friendships, and themselves. At its core, this is a story about a group of friends who love each other, navigating dreams and expectations and maybe also figuring out how to save everything. Anders thoughtfully evokes the messy magic of growing up and being a person in a world full of more wonder and cruelty than you could ever imagine.
It’s also a story about creation and creativity, and while it’s not explicitly about creating art in a pandemic, it’s definitely about exploring your relationship to art when the world is crashing down around you and when real, intimidating evil has impacted your ability to do the one thing you were always good at, and I don’t know about you, but I desperately need that story. It’s about figuring out how to do the thing you love—not in theory or in a vacuum or because you think you have to, because you defined yourself by it for as long as you can remember. But simply because you love it. And you’ll do it, however you can. It’s okay that that’s changed since you’ve been remade by grief, trauma, and the world very nearly ending, the threat of it ending still looming. Not only is that reasonable, in some ways you can see it as good, actually. That means it matters. It means you don’t do this lightly. It means you’re aware of what this means to you. One of the most beautiful lines in this book is “any art you can make in the face of unbearable sorrow is good art,” and yeah, I needed that. It’s a really crucial plot point in the story, and it hits a sort of powerful vindication I’m always going to be grateful for.
Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak delivers surprising, well-laid twists. The past bleeds in and shifts the present, and Anders challenges the classic SFF idea of the “greater good” in new and horrible ways. She crafts an innovative plot, subverting “second book in a trilogy” syndrome. This volume is definitely not mere connective tissue between the beginning and the end, but instead a vibrant continuation of character arcs, relationship arcs, and adventures. No spoilers, but by the satisfying ending, there’s a whole new set of fresh stakes that are set so high, going into the third act of the series we’re guaranteed an emotional, galaxy-rocking romp. I can’t wait.
And frankly, it just feels so good to get to read sci-fi YA space opera within Charlie Jane Anders’ magnificent, whirlwind imagination. It’s such a breathtakingly fun and comfortable world to be in. In the midst of terrifying danger and grief, there is a Brazilian trans girl princess who gets to be so, so loved. Sapphic tenderness and gender euphoria. Kids of color experimenting with presentation. The sorts of specific emotions that can’t be translated. An entire bizarre, beautiful, brimming universe without transphobia. This is a story of a chosen community, learning to grow together.
Action-packed and full of heart, this series is for queer nerds who love gallivanting through galaxies, finding themselves in found family, and a good amount of swoony romance.
Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak is published by Tor Teen.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Fil-Am and Jewish writer and poet. They have a short story forthcoming in the YA anthology Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday Books, 2023). She works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel. Find them on Twitter (@mayagittelman) or Instagram (@bookshelfbymaya).