Book Review: Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill
I loved reading this book; I guess we can start with that. Like most books I’ve been reading lately, I spotted this on the “new” shelf at the library. The cover looked really cool and the description sounded good, so I went for it. I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I think it’s okay to do so sometimes, especially when the cover is awesome and the text is awesome too.
I would describe this book as probably urban fantasy or, perhaps, a modern fairy tale. And yes, it’s a fairy tale with all the nasty, brutish implications of one told by the Brothers Grim, not the Disney adaptation. I know I am not the first person to say this, but it definitely reminded me of a Neil Gaiman novel—it’s kind of American Gods-esque. Like all great fantasy, it deals not just with the fantastical, but also with how humankind’s fantasies reflect its true nature. I’ll get into that in a minute.
Before we go any further: a summary. The first part of Dreams and Shadows alternates between two characters. There is Ewan who is kidnapped by fairies as a baby and replaced by a changeling who wastes no time compelling Ewan’s parents to kill themselves. There is also Colby, the son of an alcoholic, negligent mother who encounters a genie. Part of the excitement of reading this book was that I immediately knew that the characters were going to cross paths (because, duh, that is how stories work), but I couldn’t wait to find out how. Ewan and Colby are both eight years old during the first part of the story (with the exception of the part of the exposition that involves the changeling) so even though they are operating in realms that would seem illogical to adults, they inhabit this madness readily.
Ewan is being raised by the fairy folk of the Limestone Kingdom (near Austin, Texas—and when was the last time you read a fantasy set in Texas?) and is being slowly transformed into a fairy. Unfortunately for him, he is not being turned into a fairy just for fun, but he is the tithe child. Fairies, it is explained, have an ongoing pact with the devil that requires them to sacrifice one of their own every seven years in order to maintain their longevity. Rather than sacrifice their proper kin, they often steal children, turn them into fairies, and sacrifice them as soon as they’ve turned.
Colby meets the cursed genie (djinn, to be more accurate), Yashar. Yashar has an interesting backstory that involves a jealous vizier, the genocide of the djinn, and years of lonliness. He selects Colby for wish-making because djinn are unable to survive unless someone remembers them. Although Yashar is reluctant to grant Colby’s wish (cursed djinn, remember?), he does eventually grant it. Colby, somewhat unfortunately, wishes to “see everything.” By everything, he means all the supernatural things that no one else sees. This wish is eventually what makes him cross paths with Ewan.
I won’t go into the rest because I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice to say, Colby and Ewan do cross paths. Colby also wishes to become a wizard in what I found to be a hilarious display of child-logic. One thing I will also say about the progression of the narrative is that I appreciated Cargill’s inclusion of faux-scholarly texts on the matter of the fey. There is a series of excerpts from the work of Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D. Some of them explain different types of fairies (djinn, for one), or fairy custom (like the tithe). The best explained where fairies came from. Fairies are essentially the result of whatever ambient emotion there is to be found in an area. If a city radiates misery and hatred, fairy folk are created who feed off these emotions. A region full of goodwill is likely to engender fairies who feed on those emotions instead. In this way, the fey are a true reflection of humanity. Miserable people beget miserable creatures.
One of the themes that I found in Dreams and Shadows is that monsters aren’t the real monsters; people are. When Colby first meets Yashar, the djinn, he asks if monsters are real. His response was to tell Colby:
“Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares … They are the things that we harbor within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt of that hasn’t walked once within the soul of a man.”
So, even though most of the villains in this story are fairies, we must remember that the fairies are, effectively, created by humans. It’s easier to understand and contextualize our own humanity when we see it in another group of beings.
Another piece of the ‘monsters aren’t the monsters’ trope is Yashar’s behavior. After Colby and Ewan meet, the local fairy council decides that Colby and Yashar have to go because they pose a threat to the tithe child, Ewan. Yashar’s response to the fact that Ewan is going to be brutally murdered for the sake of the Limestone Kingdom: “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Yashar displays a much higher degree of humanity than almost anyone else in the story, despite being a djinn.
But don’t worry, this story isn’t preachy, I just like analyzing literature. Dreams and Shadows is also hilarious. One of my favorite exchanges is between young Colby and Ewan. Colby finds out that Ewan has never seen Aladdin because he’s been busy being raised by fairies. When Ewan thinks Colby is an idiot for not knowing something basic about fairies, Colby shoots back, “At least I’ve seen Aladdin!” Cargill does a great job of representing what children find to be critically important and incorporating it into the story. Another part that I laughed out loud over was Colby wishing to be a wizard. Yashar insists that he can’t “just make [Colby] a wizard.” Colby just keeps wishing, insisting that Yashar promised he would grant any wish as long as they left the Limestone Kingdom and Ewan behind. Obviously, describing jokes out of context is not that funny, but trust me, there are some pretty funny bits in this story.
There is a lot more to this story than I’ve written about here because I don’t want to spoil it. I really loved this book and it was one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a while. If you’re looking for a modern, hilarious, but poignant story, definitely check out Dreams and Shadows.