This weekend, I finished reading C. Robert Cargill’s urban fantasy novel, Dreams and Shadows. I’d had my eye on this book for a while when Amazon kindly informed me it was on special and all resistance crumbled. Being a sucker for books about Grimm-ish faeries, I dived into this novel immediately and loved almost everything about it. Almost. And what I didn’t like is deeply troubling…
*Minor spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned*
A brilliantly crafted modern tale from acclaimed film critic and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill—part Neil Gaiman, part Guillermo Del Toro, part William S. Burroughs—that charts the lives of two boys from their star-crossed childhood in the realm of magic and mystery to their anguished adulthoods
There is another world than our own—one no closer than a kiss and one no further than our nightmares—where all the stuff of which dreams are made is real and magic is just a step away. But once you see that world, you will never be the same.
Dreams and Shadows takes us beyond this veil. Once bold explorers and youthful denizens of this magical realm, Ewan is now an Austin musician who just met his dream girl, and Colby, meanwhile, cannot escape the consequences of an innocent wish. But while Ewan and Colby left the Limestone Kingdom as children, it has never forgotten them. And in a world where angels relax on rooftops, whiskey-swilling genies argue metaphysics with foul-mouthed wizards, and monsters in the shadows feed on fear, you can never outrun your fate.
Dreams and Shadows is a stunning and evocative debut about the magic and monsters in our world and in our self.
Honestly, what sold me on this book was the comparison to Gaiman, Del Toro and Burroughs. I adore Gaiman, have been highly entertained by Burroughs’ writing and found Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth absolutely terrifying (let’s forget about that Pacific Rim incident for the moment). So, Cargill was clearly a genius of epic proportions and I had high expectations for this novel. I wanted the imagination and subtle wit of Gaiman, the nihilistic, wry perspective of Burroughs and the terrifyingly absurd from Del Toro to be crammed within these pages. Not much to live up to then.
Although this book features three pre-pubescent children as the main characters for almost exactly 50% of the story (according to my Kindle), from the very first chapter it is abundantly clear this is not a book for children! The first half of the book introduces us to the faerie world anyone who is familiar with mythology or urban fantasy will recognize, and has a decidedly Gaiman-esque feel to it. I loved the first half of the book, seeing the faerie kingdom through the eyes of children and being introduced to a myriad characters. What is done well here is the mash-up of cultures. The were-beasties in this novel don’t all venture forth from Celtic mythology, but include German folkloric nasties, non-denominational angels, a djinn and even Coyote, the trickster god from Native American culture. That they all end up residing in the woods surrounding Austin, Texas also adds a Gaiman-like quality to the story, and one can’t help but think of American Gods. But Cargill establishes his own style rather quickly with witty metaphors and slick prose that at once conjures the whimsy of fairy-dom and the grittiness of the human world so typical of urban fantasies.
What I found particularly refreshing about this story is that the main characters are all young boys and the story seems poised on being more about the relationship dynamics between three guys than about a love interest. This is certainly no Darkfever or Black Dagger Brotherhood type urban fantasy. The story kept me enthralled despite a good deal of violence being dished out toward children – something I’m usually quite sensitive about – but Cargill managed not to cross the line there. At almost exactly 50% after our three protagonists (or two protagonists and one antagonist if you like) have survived the trials set before them as part of the plot, the book turns the clock ahead so that our three MCs are now twenty-somethings: one is a wannabe rockstar, the other a sort of pseudo hipster, and the third a particularly nasty type of faerie.
In this second part of the book, now that the characters are adults, the story kicks up a notch followed shortly by a lot of whiskey and four-letter words. It almost felt like the story had something to prove, trying to establish itself as one of those bleak, gritty urban fantasy novels rather than the quirky Ocean at the End of the Lane-American Gods hybrid it had so far been. That said, the plot still had me in its clutches and what the three boys did in relative innocence in childhood come back to bite them in the ass – sometimes literally – and so we have the ‘never outrun your fate’ part from the blurb being activated in a torrent of blood. Seriously, the second half of this book is violent and bloody and Cargill spares the reader no description. It was almost too much for me and I can take quite a lot of gut-spilling.
This novel kept me highly entertained, if not enthralled, throughout both halves and the ending was satisfying while still leaving room for the sequel, I did, however, have a couple of problems with this book.
Firstly, as an author myself, I absolutely understand that the view held by characters do not necessarily reflect views held by the author. A racist character doesn’t mean the author is racist for writing said character etc. However, the number of homophobic slurs in the second half of the book coming from all directions and leveled at multiple characters made me feel quite uncomfortable. If one character is a bigot, fine. If the story is set in a community where homophobia abounds, fine. But this was not that kind of story and I found the frequent insinuation that being gay was something to be ashamed of and being used as an insult highly problematic. This got me thinking about the book as a whole and it is completely hetero. I’m not looking for every book I read to embrace diversity and shower LGBT+ rainbows upon the characters, but anything non-hetero seemed conspicuous by its absence. That not a single faerie or human in the rather large cast had even considered the possibility of a romantic moment with the same sex struck me as odd, if not altogether unlikely. While one could argue that succubi by definition pray exclusively on men, and that many of these creatures are traditionally straight because, well, tradition I’d say fine but… this is fiction and the 21st Century. Couldn’t the human bartender at the local club then perhaps be gay or lesbian? Tokenism sure, but at least something! The hetero climate coupled with the gay slurs gave me pause, making me look at the role women played in this book and it isn’t good.
Of the few prominent female characters we have, the women are all assigned stereotypical gender roles, none operating outside of those assigned spheres. For example, we have several mother figures (almost all despicable), the most prominent of which becomes a vile and vengeful woman because of what happens to the men in her life. We also have various seductress types who never venture much beyond their role to entice and entrap hapless males. Even the one more powerful female who seems to have a little more agency is described as being cruel and preoccupied by youth and beauty. The only female main character we do get plays the innocent virgin to the point where she doesn’t even know what she is and that she’s actually going to eventually sex her ‘one true love’ to death and won’t be able to help herself. Barf!
Of the ass-kicking, swashbuckling characters in the story who stand up for what they believe in, fight for what they think is right, and seem to have any agency at all – not a single one is female. So now we have an all hetero cast, gay slurs and a story lacking even the faintest wisp of feminism – this is not good, especially because, for the most part, I actually really enjoyed this novel! Am I so entrenched in the patriarchal way of thinking that I didn’t even notice the problems in the narrative until well past the 50% mark? Scary.
In summation, this book provides interesting and clever world-building through some delightful prose, introduces a cast of fascinating characters and takes the reader on a bloody whirl-wind of a ride. If you can look past the misogynistic, homophobic undertones of the work (perhaps unintentional from the author? I really don’t know) then you might enjoy this grimm urban fantasy. However, I cannot, and what would’ve otherwise been a smash-hit read for me instead becomes one I am nervous to recommend.