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‘Colourful but Grey’: A Review of Dream and Shadows’ by C. Robert Cargill

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Happy Friday! 

 We are very excited to be able to kick off our brand new feature here on the blog- Gollancz Geeks Friday Reads! Every Friday we’ll be sharing a Gollancz Geeks reviews with you. Today’s Dreams and Shadows review was written by Richard Webb. You can tweet Richard @RaW_writing or leave a comment for him on our blog. Have you read Dreams and Shadows? Let us know in the comment or by tweeting us @Gollancz.

Check back next week for another Gollancz Geeks Friday Reads review! 

Dreams and Shadows is the debut novel of film critic C. Robert Cargill aka ‘Massawyrm’, a voice well known to those of us familiar with Ain’t It Cool News. And just as the best screenplays establish their world within the first ten minutes, Cargill establishes the world of his story within the first ten pages. Actually this is ‘worlds’: our world and the fairy world, which co-exists with our own but is veiled from us … or at least it is supposed to be, and herein lies the action of the book.

The fairy world is depicted as beautiful, monstrous, alien and timeless, nicely taking cues from ancient Gaelic/Celtic folklores amongst others, and yet is contemporary too. Whilst the trope of the fairy folk/Grimm creatures/shape-shifters being ‘all around us in the present day if only we could properly see them’ is not a new path to tread, Cargill steers it in a new direction, into a modern-day Austin that is sufficiently pretty, gritty and shitty in equal turns. In many ways, the fairy world has these qualities too, and despite encompassing much that is weird by our standards, enforces its own standards of acceptance and marginalization, with fae characters being equally downtrodden and disaffected by social hierarchies, prejudices and codes of behavior.

Rules in this ‘other world’ are strongly established — indeed, rules are very much a component of how this world operates; but (and this is no great spoiler) rules can often be subverted with a sleight of hand … the devious hand of a fae. The author imaginatively depicts the intrigues and deceits of the fairy folk, using their more destructive caprices to also reflect the darker side of human behavior and the chaos that governs our existence. In the true tradition of fairy tales, (the real ones, not the ones about magic princesses riding unicorns over the rainbow), the darkness is never far away. Nor is the moral of the story; which in this instance is: ‘be careful what you wish for’.

The book does not shy from tackling morality and the author deserves much credit for showing the grey rather than the black-and-white of this, showing both fae and human characters making hard choices though on a couple of occasions this teetered close to a treatise on ‘how disappointing life/fate/people can be’. Choices are driven both by baser instincts such as revenge, jealousy and hatred but these are counterpointed with moments of lightness, of love and tenderness. But such moments are fleeting …

The premise drew me in immediately — a ‘perfect’ love story from our world, impacted by an incursion from the fairy world. There followed strands of action in each setting, skillfully overlapped and intertwined by Cargill; the plot never became so sprawling that it was not easy to follow, remaining for the most part focused on a couple of lead characters, Colby and Ewan, with a strong cast of colourful support roles: Knocks, a kind of antithetical homunculus version of one of main characters, Mallaidh, a glamorous nymph (‘glamorous’ in the true sense of the word), the fatalistic djinn Yashar and the deliciously enigmatic Coyote.

For the most part, things move swiftly and whilst many other minor figures enter and exit this was all part of the parade of oddities that added abundance to both worlds, and did not detract from the momentum of the action. Even the conceit of the ‘textbook’ description of various fairy kin, which was a risk that could have fallen foul of the ‘info-dump’ trap, was handled with a light touch and so was not just entertaining but integral and eventually tied back to the main storyline.

The story built to an ominous climax, though there were some superpowers on show that were just too, er … ‘super-powerful’ for my preference, and a few moments that seemed to veer towards film blockbuster qualities and away from the subtleties and atmospherics that make the majority of the book so compelling. But that aside, the ending delivered … and without spoiling, it retained the satisfying greyness that characterized the book’s tone throughout.

The book aptly displayed how fairies feed off human emotion yet at times it seemed like we were perhaps not feeling enough emotion from some of the characters … later in the book it seemed at times like the only way anyone expressed any sort of pain was through excessive whiskey drinking. However, motivations were nicely handled: they were very clearly articulated for the human characters, but deliberately obfuscated for the guileful non-human characters (even those in human guise).

Minor quibble: for a book with such evocative chapter headings, why such a generic title? ‘Dreams and Shadows’ says so little of what is between the covers (though in fairness the choice of title may not wholly lie with the author). It’s not inaccurate as such, just not that beguiling either. Meh, that’s just me. No matter, it doesn’t detract from what is a well-paced, colourful and stylishly delivered story.

I inhaled this book in just a couple of days. It has a richness of setting and character but simplicity of language that made it easy to digest, whilst the more philosophical angle gave me something to chew on. This is a deliciously dark fantasy treat; I look forward to whatever Cargill serves up next.

 Dreams and Shadows is out now where all good books are sold.