Dreams and Shadows: The clumsy little kid who makes you smile

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert CargillDreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill

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.

~Bill Capossere


fantasy book reviews Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert CargillC. Robert Cargill has some interesting ideas in his debut novel Dreams and Shadows, but I think the book needed more revision before it was done. Under-developed characters and bad structural choices stand between the reader and the story in this one, and it’s a shame, because there is a story here and it is interesting.

Dreams and Shadows brings us a faerie land that is closer to the dark, original myths of Britain and middle Europe; bloodthirsty beings who feed on humanity in various ways. Instead of brownies and sprites, Cargill gives us redcaps, who drench their caps in the blood of their victims to keep up their strength, and nixies, who drown unwary travelers. Against the backdrop of a faerie kingdom in Texas, he tells us the story of two boys, Colby and Ewan. Ewan, a human boy, was stolen from his parents as an infant. A changeling was left in his place. He was brought to the faerie kingdom and raised as if he were one of them, for a sinister purpose. The other boy, Colby, meets a djinn and makes a wish, with startling consequences.

Nearly the first half of the book follows Ewan as little boy, about seven. Ewan romps with and follows them when they hunt humans, not realizing that these are his own people he is helping to kill. Colby, who is eight, and the djinn Yashar, come to visit the Kingdom of Limestone, and Yashar uncovers Ewan’s intended fate. When he is tricked into revealing it to Colby, Colby insists that they step in and save Ewan. Then the book jumps to the city of Austin, fourteen years later, where Colby, who is now a wizard, still guards and looks after his friend Ewan. Ewan is being stalked by a faerie called Knocks, the changeling boy who was left in Ewan’s place. When Ewan’s parents rejected him and the father tried to drown him, Knocks was adopted by a nixie and raised by her. He was filled with jealousy and hatred for Ewan when Ewan was in the faerie court and his hatred intensified when his adopted mother was killed by the Wild Hunt. Now, in the mundane world, his feelings have not changed. The addition of the beautiful Sidhe maiden Mallaidh (we’d pronounce it “Molly”) creates an implausible love triangle among Knocks, Ewan and Mallaidh, one that will have fatal results.

Behind the scenes is Coyote, who is pulling the strings for a reason that isn’t explained (although not that hard to guess) until after the climactic battle. Yashar and Coyote sit down then, over a bottle of bourbon, and explain everything that just happened.

Structurally, one of the most annoying things about Dreams and Shadows is the use of a book-within-a-book to impart faerie information to the reader. The book’s excerpts either immediately precede or follow right on the heels of some event involving a faerie creature. Changelings? Oh, look, here’s a chapter on changelings. Veelas, nixies? Let’s see what Dr. Thaddeus Ray has to say. The Wild Hunt? Why look, the next chapter is a monograph on that very thing! I have to say I am a huge fan of the book-within-a-book trope, but it has no meaning here. The revelation of identity of Thaddeus Ray is not surprising, and these expository lumps are big enough to be choking hazards. They slow down the action, reading more like the manual for a role-laying game than the immersive experience a novel is supposed to be.

Colby and Yashar are interesting characters. Mallaidh is less of a character than a plot convention, probably the least developed character in the book. Otherworldly creatures like angels appear, who serve no real purpose and have no real motivations. The book felt somewhat derivative; a little Harry Dresden, a little Simon R Green, a little Richard Kadrey, a little Joss Whedon.

The other problem is simply whose story this is. This is, or should be, Colby’s story, despite some misdirection at the beginning. Colby, who meets a genie, wishes he were a wizard. Yashar is forced to grant his wish. Thus, our hero becomes a powerful wizard with no work. It seems that Colby will have to pay the piper retroactively, and that is what Cargill is trying to set up, presumably for future books. Still, Colby has unlimited power with no personal consequences, and while is friendship with Ewan is sweet it is never compelling enough to drive Colby’s actions at the end.

There is plenty of gruesome action and suspense in the book, and for many readers that will be enough. (For some readers, the graphic violence may be a turn-off; just be aware.) Cargill has talent and it will be interesting to see what he does in the future.

What is original and interesting here is the idea of cursed genie, and the boy to whom he grants wishes. Here’s my wish; that Cargill had given this book one more revision, drilled down deep and found his own story, about Yashar and the boy who wants to be wizard.

~Marion Deeds

Release date: February 26, 2013. Screenwriter and acclaimed film critic C. Robert Cargill makes his fiction debut with Dreams and Shadows, taking beloved fantasy tropes, giving them a twist, and turning out a wonderful, witty, and wry take on clash between the fairy world and our own. Something is missing from Ewan and Colby’s lives. Residing in the corners of their memories is their time in Limestone Kingdom, a realm filled with magic and mystery, a world where only some may travel amongst the menagerie of mystical souls and sinister demons. Cargill offers well-crafted characters and an absorbing, intricate plot that will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman and Lev Grossman. Dreams and Shadows pulls you into an extraordinary universe of darkness that exposes the magic and monsters in our world, and in ourselves.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. RedEyedGhost /

    This book was a big disappointment to me also. It had a lot of potential that was squandered in the second half. I did like the the epilogue enough that I’ll have to seriously think about continuing on if more books are forthcoming.

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