Robin Childs’ masterwork LeyLines is one of those comics which seems to have lurked on the internet since forever, so it’s easy to forget the comic has ‘only’ been going since 2011. Part of that longevity probably comes from the author and her involvement with projects like the Webcomic Alliance, but much of it also comes from the unique and well defined world in which the comic is set. This is a world where magic meets industrialisation, where society struggles to integrate their new values with the old, and where the Gods can visit you in your dreams. If you haven’t read it already, here is a good place to start. If you have read it, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the unique way Childs’ delivers her magic system in the story: through the power of the very Gods themselves, deities who live in the realm of dreams…
Gods and dreams have a long history of connectivity in our own world, as well as the world of LeyLines. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, agents of Yahweh (such as angels, Jesus, certain saints or even God himself) often visit prophets, kings, and saints in their dreams to deliver important messages; most famously when Joseph the carpenter was convinced to stay with his fiancee, Mary, in the New Testament. In other mythologies, such as the stories of Dreamtime in Australia, the dreamscape – or the realm of creation and energy not bound by mortal constraints – and mundane reality can clash and blur through the influence of the Gods and spirits crossing the veil. And in some North American folklore dreams can be controlled and channelled, and sleepers can be protected from bad dreams through the weaving of spiderweb-like dreamcatchers.
Each of these deific connections with dreaming are represented through the magic system of LeyLines. In fact, the comic opens by using a dream to convey a God’s knowledge to mortals – in this case, communication with the God “Dream Eater.” Childs’ take on this is particularly interesting, as in this case it is not the dreamer who benefits from this knowledge. Instead, Zhiro the shadow monk loses out when acting as a conduit for their God. Later, we see Zhiro undertaking a more traditional version of this magic (and running into the sort of danger one should expect when dealing with a trickster God).
Although on the surface, Zhiro’s “summoning” of Dream Eater might appear different to ‘dream magic’ in the strictest sense, Childs is careful to show each time Zhiro (or others) interacts with the deity he has at least one eye closed; and is fully asleep when his God collects the terms of his bargain. Regardless of the other rules in place, this is still a magic rooted in dreams and the dreamscape of the Gods.
The relation of the LeyLines’ magic system to the dreamscape is much clearer through the character of Mizha. Mizha is, literally, a “dreamer” – one who blurs the line between reality and the dreamscape, allowing her to enter it at will and remake the reality within. Even more amazing, it seems the events which take place inside the dreamscape can also effect the real world: when Mizha drops out of the dreamscape unexpectedly in Chapter three, for instance, the dreamers physical bodies end up in the desert instead of the train they had been traveling in. These powers are available through the influence of the “Rainbow Goddess,” the mistress of imagination and creativity.
As with the summoning of Dream Eater, there are rules governing Mizha’s access to (and exit from) the Rainbow Goddess’ dreamscape: predominantly, she must be touching a mirror in order to enter it. Without using this conduit herself, she can still summon the dreamscape, but… well, results may vary.
Like every good magic system, this power comes with a cost: if Mizha’s connection with her mirror is broken while she’s inside the dreamscape, she will become trapped there and eventually die. Similarly, overuse of her power will blur the lines between imagination and reality to a dangerous level. These drawbacks echo some of the common tropes of the ‘dreamworld’ setting, such as elements of the dream affecting reality and the danger of being lost within the imaginative dreamscape. Childs’ use of the form manages to keep these elements fresh rather than hackneyed, though, especially with the way this form of the magic interweaves with the others.
And speaking of interweaving, we come to the third main approach to the magic of LeyLines: the use of dreams as auguries. The character of Kali represents the power of her God, “The Bone Matron” by ritually bringing rains to her tribe and receiving (oftimes unwanted) visions of the future. This seems by far the most directly related magic to the mythologies of the real world. Before her transition into the Bone Matron, Kali’s goddess was known as the “Fate Spider,” and was defined by her knowledge of the future. Visually, through the use of the spiderweb motif and also through the appearance of Kali’s tribe and their city, the Bone Matron seems to be paying homage to Gods such as Asibikaashi from Ojibwa legend. This North American Goddess was the inspiration behind creating Dreamcatchers, traditionally used to filter bad dreams for the Goddesses collection, and now more commonly created as knick-knacks for tourists. The price Kali pays for her access to this power is also suitably ironic – with every vision of the future she is sent, her mundane vision gets ever more dim. This strong connection to real-world mythology helps Kali’s connection to Bone Matron feel real, and avoids the temptation to make her the panacea for every problem the group might face (the perennial problem with characters who can see the future).
It’s worth noting that, although magic and deities associated with dreams have a long history in a global context, they have mostly fallen out of favour with the modern audience, thanks to overuse in some maddeningly specific ways. Introducing another layer of fiction on to your already fictional world can leave the reader feeling dissatisfied with your narrative: after all, what consequence is there for the story when major plot points can be solved by your characters taking a nap? Childs skirts around these issues not only by drawing on our collective mythology but by recombining elements of these myths to introduce consequence: Kali can’t simply look into the future to answer important questions, but must wait for Bone Mother to send her a vision; Mizha can remake reality, but as she does so her physical body is in mortal peril; Zhiro can commune with the God of knowledge at will, but Dream Eater does not remember the knowledge he once used to, and will extract a memory of Zhiro’s own in payment. Together, these systems of give and take keep the whole thing balanced and guards against disenfranchising the reader by seeming to cheat the narrative through the much-abused ‘all a dream’ shortcut.
What do you think of the magic system in LeyLines? Do you think this review should have mentioned what the LeyLines are and how they work into the magic system? Shout us your rage in the comments below or on Twitter, and until next time always remember: don’t eat the clickbait!