Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill is not what I would label a particularly well-written novel. In fact, in many ways, I’d call it a poorly written one. But despite the several issues I had with major aspects of the work, I have to admit that by the end I was mostly enjoying myself and curious as to where the story was going to go.
The novel opens up with a fairy-tale like romance, one that was a bit too sugary for my liking, so much so that I nearly didn’t make it past the first dozen or so pages. But the sweetness turns quickly bitter and the dream turns nightmare, which pretty much sets the stage for how much of this book is going to go. The repercussions of that opening will eventually fall most heavily on the lives of two boys: Ewan and Colby. Ewan is spirited away to Faerie to be raised for much of his early childhood while Colby lives in an all-too real world with a neglectful, alcoholic mother. At least, he does so until he meets a cursed genie who grants him a wish. As a result of that wish, Colby and Ewan meet and their lives (which we see by jumping ahead a number of years) are never the same, nor is the relationship between Faerie and humanity in this part of the world (Austin, Texas). Their tale is interspersed with chapters from a purported textbook of Faerie creatures, including Redcaps, Changelings, The Wild Hunt, Coyote, and others, all of who play important roles in the narrative.
The mythology is a bit of a muddle, as Cargill throws pretty much everything into the soup here: the above-named creatures plus angels, the Devil, boggarts, dwarves, Sidhe, nixies, djinn, and others. We’ve got Celtic, Native American, Middle Eastern, Nordic, Christian, and more. On the one hand, the sheer volume adds some brio to the story, variety the spice and all that, but on the other hand, one has the sneaking feeling that one shouldn’t look too carefully at the wires and struts that hold it all together, mostly out of a sense it doesn’t quite in fact hold. And I’m still not sure how I feel about the interchapters. Some of them are more akin to fables while others are more academic sounding and I greatly preferred the former over the latter. But for the most part I found the whole folktale background entertaining, despite it being a bit of a mutt, especially when the creatures of different mythos intersected, and especially when that happened in seedy back alley bars.
The characterization leaves a lot to be desired. There’s never a great sense of why people do some of the things they do and we mostly skim along the surface of these characters, rarely dipping into deeper waters. The faerie are pretty one-note, which is I’d say purposeful and fits in with how they are described as a whole, but it does make for some shallow characters and simplistic villains. It’s more of a problem with Ewan and Colby. Neither comes fully alive outside of their very early years (not in the sense of being lively — there is a well-explained reason for the two being flat in that sense in their older years — but in the sense of feeling fully three-dimensional). In many ways, the most interesting characters are three creatures who get far less page time: Colby’s djinn, Coyote, and an earthbound angel.
The prose doesn’t do much to distinguish itself; it moves story and character along in solid fashion but one would have wished for a bit more sense of the poetic (not literal), a more rich vocabulary, in a story dealing with the faerie world. Its mundanity works a bit against the story.
Finally, it should be noted that Cargill can really at times turn up the violence and graphic detail of said violence to slasher-film heights. Those who don’t like that sort of thing are going to find several disturbing scenes (here is an example I’d argue where the prose works against Cargill in that these scenes read like the same-old slasher-film moments rather than the stuff of nightmare).
So a bit of a muddle background, weak and somewhat shallow characters, and mostly pedestrian language. And yet, as I said I did find myself engrossed in the story, especially once I’d made it past the halfway point. Part of that is thanks to those three intriguing faerie creatures, especially Coyote and the djinn, each of whom raises the enjoyment level of any scene they are in. Part of it is due to the way Cargill took these too often tamed creatures of fantasy and kept them as their dark, random, dangerous selves. What is most effective is not that they are villainous, but that villainy is just what they do. What they are. That older, more original aspect of faerie is too rarely acknowledged. The final aspect that made Dreams and Shadows more success than failure for me is the strength of Cargill’s dialogue and wry humor, which really quite often carried the book for me, especially in its latter stages when both Ewan and Colby have grown up.
In some ways, Dreams and Shadows reminds me of Lev Grossman’s ongoing trilogy The Magicians/The Magician King, though nowhere nearly as well crafted, whether on a sentence level or with regard to character and theme. But in the way it deals with faerie as a darker world than usual, the way it gives us characters caught up in the unintended consequences of their own actions and their own power, Dreams and Shadows is kind of like the clumsier little kid out on the basketball court trying to emulate his older, much better skilled brother. It’s not as aesthetic, it doesn’t wow you, but you can’t help but smile and watch for a while to see if the ball ever goes in. And damn if it doesn’t by the end. Recommended with all the caveats.