Dreams and Shadows. Book Review

dreams-and-shadows-cover-LSDREAMS AND SHADOWS by C. Robert Cargill

Gollancz, h/b, £14.99

Reviewed by Alex Bardy (Twitter: @mangozoid)

Dreams and Shadows has received a lot of excellent press already, and while I’m usually the first to go ‘against the grain’ should opportunity arise, I have to hold my hands up and say fair play because I loved this too, so much so that I’m already tipping it for a host of awards when the roll call comes round for 2013.

The core story here is one of two young boys and the bonds of friendship that form between them. Although it does last into adulthood, the journey to get there is both black as hell and ‘somewhat haphazard’, and I daresay there are plenty of hints there is more to come.

Ewan is the son of two parents hopelessly in love, but when he is removed from his crib at an early age and replaced by a changeling, his parents are on borrowed time. He is too, but not before he is dragged into a grim and hostile faerie realm the like of which you won’t find at the bottom of any garden — and if Tinkerbell is in there somewhere, she’s probably the head of a brothel that advertises “thoroughly depraved” as the sixpence daily special. C Robert Cargill’s world is not just dark, but thoroughly miserable, blacker than night, and taking no prisoners, at least not unless they’re being groomed for a sacrificial rite or ‘tithe’ in which mortal babies are used to appease the devil every seven years (aka the devil’s tithe). But enough about Ewan…

The other young boy is Colby, and a chance meeting with a djinn (genie) opens his eyes to a world unlike any other, although not before the embittered djinn pleads with him to mind what he wishes for… in this case, it just so happens Colby wishes not only to be able to see faeries, angels, wizards, and all manner of things he’s not supposed to, but also to wield the kind of magic that’s best left to those who understand how it works. Regardless, he becomes a sorcerer, wields incredible power albeit with no control, and from then on things just get a tad weird — or wired — depending on your point of view.

Told in two distinct parts, separated by fourteen years (give or take), and punctuated throughout by ‘excerpts’ from a number of books that explain faerie myth and magic as we read along, I couldn’t help but admire the audacity of the author as he freely rips from any half-decent book on faeries and folklore to bring about this tale. Ironically, I just happened to be researching fairies, angels, etc. for a project of my own when this book fell into my lap, and thus to see the author draw on assorted faerie minutiae, and bring into the mix so many aspects of faerie folklore — everything from the afore-mentioned Devil’s Tithe to the insidious redcaps; the principles of faerie Glamour (wherein faeries can conceal their appearance to deceive mortals); the mermaids and selkies; changelings and gwyllion (the latter are evil mountain faeries, patrons of the goat); dwarves, goblins and the Brown Man of the Muirs; the inspirational but nonetheless tragic life of Leanhaun Shee (here referred to as Leanan Sidhe but nonetheless fulfilling the same role as the infamous Faerie Mistress); and of course, The Wild Hunt in which the devil rides out (on goats no less) to claim lost souls, etc.  — all of these are brought to vivid life in a surreal world of fantasy that has you begging to read more.

There are plenty of highlights herein: the backstreet basement bar which is the hangout for fallen angels and drunken faeries alike is well realised and utterly poignant, and we also get to witness the aforementioned Wild Hunt not once but twice — first in the faerie wood (aka the Limestone Kingdom) and later in the modern world careening through downtown Austin, Texas!

All told, there is plenty to recommend here, and despite the hotch-potch of mythological asides and ‘excerpts’ liberally interspersed throughout, the prose does pull you deeper into the narrative, and with a deft hand too, at least until the next violent scene or gory death slams you in the face. In summary, this is a brazen, superlative take on established faerie myth that dares the reader to abandon what they think they already know, opening in turn a horribly grim and dark underworld in which faeries are far from all sweetness and light.