On the Wild Side of Austin: Dreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill

“Once upon a time,” the upcoming novel Dreams and Shadows begins, “there were two people who fell very much in love.” In a novel described as the meeting of Gaiman and Del Toro, this is not a happy beginning, but one filled with inevitable horrors. In this regard, newcomer Cargill does not disappoint. The happy couple mentioned in the opening line die within fifteen pages, tricked and bested by a changeling sent from the fairy court. The changeling—Knocks, a revolting mirror version of his human counterpart—revels in his adopted parents’ fear, disgust, and finally death. And he only gets more charming as the story progresses.

Told with shifting points of view, excerpts from fantastical encyclopedias, and fairy tale narration, this novel is anything but traditional. Dark, comedic, and unsettling, Dreams and Shadows is everything an urban fantasy sets out to be.

The novel follows three primary characters from childhood to adulthood—Knocks, the changeling; Ewan, his human counterpart; and Colby, a little boy with the debatably good fortune to run into a djinn (or genie, if you’re as uncultured as myself). This particular djinn, however, is even less lucky than your regular, run-of-the-mill wish maker: he is cursed. In a moment of good faith and good will, one of his previous masters wished for the simple gift that the djinn might make each of his future wishers as happy as he had made him. Having ultimately been tortured and killed, however, a wish made in compassion quickly turned curse, for no matter how good the djinn might hope to remain, he must continue to grant wishes merely in order to survive.

So when 8-year-old Colby wishes to see fairies, angels, and the whole magical world, he and his djinn set into motion a series of events that will mimic this earlier play of good intentions and cruel, blind fate. Their first stop is the Limestone Kingdom, a fairy kingdom on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, where Ewan is being prepped for his role as tithe child. Ewan was not kidnapped and replaced by a changeling for any old reason, it turns out, but to be turned into a fairy and sacrificed to the devil in the community’s stead. This sacrifice will, purportedly, retain the fairies’ near immortality without the ritual sacrifice of one of their own kind. Ewan, of course, is none the wiser. Knocks the changeling, having driven his adopted parents to death, also lives in the Limestone Kingdom and spends much of his time seething with jealous rage at the seemingly adored Ewan.

Ewan and Colby are instantly friends in the cheerful way that kids slip into relationships. They tease one another, play in the woods, and bond tremendously in a short period of time. When Colby leaves, though, and shortly after finds out about Ewan’s fate, their bond takes a different turn. Colby, like the djinn’s previous master, makes a selfless wish: to become a wizard so that he has the power to save Ewan. The long-suffering genie grants the wish, knowing full well that the consequences will be great and terrible.

He is, of course, correct. Ewan’s guardian is killed in his stead, and the child is raised in the human foster care system, his memories having faded without the magic of his old home. Colby, by the time he reaches his twenties, is burdened with power and knowledge. Both are dreadfully lonely, and both retain only one friend: one another. As adults, Colby and Ewan inhabit the stereotypes of urban fantastical professions: successful bookseller and failing musician, respectively. Things begin to change for the two friends when the fairy world begins to infringe upon the human: first, Knocks learns of Ewan’s continued existence, and sets out to kill him; second, Ewan’s old childhood sweetheart, a Leanan Sidhe named Mallaidh, finds and pursues him to other, potentially more pleasant ends.

Colby, ever the self-made martyr, continues with the intent to save Ewan from his fate. As his friend’s memories resurface, and as the fairy world becomes aware of an approaching war between the humans of Austin and the fairies of the Limestone Kingdom, Colby is forced into decisions that will change the relationship between the immortal and mortal worlds forever. Are the deaths of many worth the life of one? Yes, Colby decides without hesitation, just as he did as a child, yes, they very much are. The only difference is that, this time, hell is unleashed, and Cargill seems far more willing to kill off his characters (in progressively more gruesome ways) now that they’ve reached adulthood.

Cargill got his start in film, there’s no doubting that. Dreams and Shadows is cinematic in its descriptions, with a dreadfully realistic aesthetic. It is a testimony to the genre of urban fantasy itself: to see the gruesome and the fantastical in our own contemporary world, rather than as an outdated tale told to young children. And yet, it retains that which makes the fairy tale great: the familiar structure, the warring of civilization and nature, and the simple wonder with which we approach a world unlike our own. The characters are archetypes, but they (with the exception discussed below) work towards the novel’s end; after all, what better way to discuss the gray area between good and evil than to harken back to the oldest examples in story-telling? The trickster, the tortured artist, the wise mentor—all are as vivid as when they were first conceived.

However, just as Cargill’s cinematic experience shows through in the novel, so too does his lack of literary experience. His heavy-handedness and his often wretched attempts at metaphorical language sometimes drew me out of the story. Far more noticeable, however, was his inability to write a female character; Mallaidh, more manic pixie dream girl than a true Leanan Sidhe, literally exists only to serve male character and plot development, and the same can be said of every other woman in the book as well. Each one is described in terms of beauty—whether faded, almost, or supernatural—which, while true to fairy tale form, is ludicrous when compared to the more nuanced characterization of the male characters. Ewan and Mallaidh’s romance is dreadfully boring, and not because it lacks passionate embraces and ghastly consequences, but because Mallaidh lacks the will and personality to be anything other than a sexy pawn in the novel’s larger story.

I have a lot of hope for Cargill’s future works, though. I’m willing to chalk his awful female characters and cringe-worthy similes up to a lack of experience rather than any sort of innate sexism or bad writing. Dreams and Shadows is a lot of fun, and it is worth reading; and I think that Cargill’s next work will be even better.

Dreams and Shadows is published by HarperVoyager. It is available February 26.

Emily Nordling likes good books, bad tv, and superior tea.


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