Dreams of Shreds and Tatters: Gradually, my suspension of disbelief eroded away

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum fantasy book reviewsDreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum

I’m giving this book a lower rating than I expected to. Usually a 2.5-star rating from me means I found serious structural, character or writing problems with the book, and that’s not the case here. My low rating of Amanda Downum’s Dreams of Shreds and Tatters reflects the gap between my expectations and my experience. The writer did do a few things that jarred me out of the book, though, and I am going to discuss those.

First of all, I’d like to talk about what I liked. I loved the idea here, of a group of artists under the sway of a magician, searching for a portal to a mysterious city in another realm. I liked moments in the writing; when she wants to, Downum can unleash a passage of weird, lush prose that is captivating and beautiful. For the most part, I liked our two main characters, Liz and her partner Alex. At several points in the book, Downum attempts a pastiche of the decadent, eerie writing of fin-de-siecle tales like Trilby, and for the most part she masters that.

Liz is a languages scholar. Blake, who is gay and an artist, is her best friend since childhood. Blake fell in love and moved with his lover, Alain, to Vancouver, across the country from Liz. She hasn’t heard from him in months, and in her dreams, he is drowning. Liz is a person who always helps others, and who has weathered many losses in her life, like the deaths of her parents when she was young. This makes her compassion and desire to help almost pathological, and her partner Alex worries about the fixation on Blake. Still, he accompanies her to Vancouver over the winter holiday. In Vancouver, they find out that Blake is in a coma and Alain is dead, the result of an accident in an isolated cabin on a lake. The details of the accident don’t make sense, and as Liz questions Blake’s mentor Rainer and one or two surviving artists, she uncovers a fixation on the lost city of Carcosa and the coming of the king in yellow.

The yellow king comes from a series of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, first published in 1895 in a collection called The King in Yellow. In several of the weird stories, characters encounter a cursed play called The King in Yellow. Anyone who reads the play goes mad or faces terrible misfortune. Downum springboards off the figure of the king and the idea of the mystical city. In Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, a circle of artists is looking for a way to open a portal and enter the city, and it seems like this is not a very good idea. They use a magical drug called mania to enhance their magical perceptions, and that’s really not a good idea.

From that set-up I was expecting a book that was more intentionally weird, with more sense of dislocation, distrust of one’s own senses. For example, a beautiful moment occurs in the story when Liz and Alex are trying to find Blake’s apartment, and they walk past it several times. When, finally, they count the doors, they still almost miss it, because it is protected by a spell. Downum reprises this spell at the cabins by the lake, and it is just as good then, but there is far too little of this. Instead, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters becomes a pretty conventional urban fantasy, with wise-cracking monster-hunters with big guns and a good aim, with Mafioso-like demons sidling up to people and offering “deals,” with human drug dealers, disgraced magicians and somewhat everyday spells. The fact that I was not led to expect this is the fault of the publisher, who, by cover and blurb, promises a different story than the writer delivers.

Downum can take some of the responsibility too, though. When she is trying to out-Chambers Chambers, she does well and I could have read more of that. Otherwise, her prose is repetitive in spots, and she kept using certain words over and over. In general prose, some words get used a lot and we don’t notice them because they are ordinary. When the writer repeats a vivid word or a specific word, though, and it isn’t needed for story-purposes, I notice it and it jars me. “Sticky” is used several times in the first thirty or forty pages. Later, Downum tells us three times what the albuterol in Alex’s inhaler tastes like. After the first time, I don’t need that detail anymore. We’re told more than once that mania is like “bitter tears.”

Secondary characters are not well differentiated. I had trouble telling Rae from Antja, and two other characters in the artists’ circle are clearly disposable from the first time we meet them. There are other small inconsistencies. Liz is attacked by a human mania addict, who bites her on the hand (and by the way, do you know how rare is it for a non-vampire, non-zombie character to bite someone in an urban fantasy? This was really good!). The bite becomes infected. The pain is so bad that Liz can barely use the hand, except when “… she folded her arms under her chest, pressing sweaty palms against her coat.” She is, apparently, pain and bandage free at this point, although a few pages later we see the infected wound again. This is not the only time that Liz does something that requires two hands, and has no trouble with the injury.

These are minor things, but they accumulate, and my suspension of disbelief eroded away under their pressure. In the last few pages of the book I was wondering not whether Liz, Alex and Blake would survive, but if Downum had been worried about hitting a deadline.

I think the ideal reader for Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is someone who loves urban fantasy with a garnish of the weird. Downum is a good writer and I’ve enjoyed her second-world fantasies. I enjoy a lot of what’s here. While I didn’t like this book particularly, I liked lots of its pieces, and I’m curious to see what Downum writes next.

Publication date: May 12, 2015. Lovecraftian urban fantasy, but it’s Lovecraft with all the worst exceses taken out. Beautifully written and brilliantly paced. When Liz Drake’s best friend vanishes, nothing can stop her nightmares. Driven by the certainty he needs her help, she crosses a continent to search for him. She finds Blake comatose in a Vancouver hospital, victim of a mysterious accident that claimed his lover’s life–in her dreams he drowns. Blake’s new circle of artists and mystics draws her in, but all of them are lying or keeping dangerous secrets. Soon nightmare creatures stalk the waking city, and Liz can’t fight a dream from the daylight world: to rescue Blake she must brave the darkest depths of the dreamlands. Even the attempt could kill her, or leave her mind trapped or broken. And if she succeeds, she must face the monstrous Yellow King, whose slave Blake is on the verge of becoming forever.

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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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4 comments

  1. A great review, Marion. I think I’m the sort of person who would usually like this book, as I love both urban fantasy and the Weird, and the set-up sounds delectable — but the problems you point out would make me crazy. It’s nice to read such a thoughtful review by someone who clearly did a close reading.

  2. Thanks for your review. I’ve been eyeing this one in the bookstore for a while–now I have a better idea what to expect from it.

    (I tried to read a romance last year where the hero had one arm, except the author kept forgetting he was missing an arm and has him swashbuckling around on ropes and stuff with no mention of how he was working around it.)

    • I think some writers need to go back to the days of the bulletin board or white board (instead of a spreadsheet) so they can write in bold letters, “Dustin lost his arm!” That way they won’t forget.

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