Dreams and Shadows is a dark, exciting debut of urban fantasy
‘Dreams and Shadows’ is from new author C. Robert Cargill and evokes comparison to fellow urban fantasy authors Lev Grossman and Neil Gaiman.
It’s a common feeling that there’s more to reality than we can perceive — whether or not there’s a massive government conspiracy running things, ghosts and bigfoots in plain sight, or just that there’s a hidden world of magic. The hidden world is a very common concept in modern fantasy, meaning stories that take place in the modern era. The Harry Potter series was a lighter look at this concept (albeit one that got darker later on), and similar adult ones are Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or Neil Gaiman’s Americans Gods.
Dreams and Shadows is the latest to approach this intriguing idea, from first time author C. Robert Cargill (previously only known for writing the screenplay for Sinister). Much like many others in this genre, it’s a story about young men becoming adults — of a sort. And of course, test their friendship to the absolute extreme. We follow three main characters: Ewan, who was kidnapped and switched with a changeling to be raised by faeries near Austin, Texas, Colby, a young boy who makes a fateful wish that changes his life, and most interestingly, the changeling himself, who has his own contrary interests to everyone else.
This story is a mix of fantasy concepts and mythologies, throwing in bits from Arabian Nights, Irish folklore, and a touch of classic Judeo-Christian mythos. The world seems rich with intrigue, even if most of the fantastical elements tend to be derived from common or obscure creatures from the British Isles. There is no specific reason given for the preponderance of these creatures, other than a vague European connection, although there is just the slightest hints of Native American and Greek legends combined into the faerie world . It becomes increasingly clear that the author is very familiar with Austin, which isn’t exactly a typical sort of location for these types of “urban fantasy” tales, especially as the majority of the story takes place in more suburban areas or entirely in the wilderness. Normally you see either the very dense cities like Chicago or New York, or the old world juxtaposed with the modern like London or Paris. Perhaps it is that capability to connect the city with the desert that allows Austin to serve as a transition between the banal and the fantastic.
The book uses interstitial chapters that quote from fictional books within the book’s universe that serve to bolster the current story and sometimes reveal terrible secrets. This sort of technique may annoy some readers, although it’s exactly the sort of thing I personally enjoy, especially the way it ties into the story. This is a book that revels in its “adult” audience, immediately jumping in to very dark and horrific plots to prove that this ain’t no kids tale. The gory bits can seem a bit extraneous, but the writing is consistently fun and engrossing. I wonder if there’s a connection between the horror movie screenwriter start of the author and the occasional overkill of blood and guts. There’s certainly a strong feeling that this book is setting itself up as the first of a series, with an ending that allows for more adventures in this particular version of Earth. But with only a few truly interesting continuing series these days, I’m happy for another one to join the mix.
The two draws here are the great integration of magic and its rules into the “real” world and the nuanced, complicated characters. Ewan and Colby are troubled twenty-somethings with ability and problems all derived from the pain of their youth. Even the monstrous side characters have odd depth, especially for the ones that are seemingly without typical human morals. Overall, it’s an easy read, one that draws you in and connects you to the characters. It’s not for kids, this one, but that’s okay.
Dreams and Shadows comes out February 26th, 2013.