Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is Amanda Downum’s latest novel. It marks a striking change, both tonally and in setting, from her previous long-form work: where The Drowning City, The Bone Palace, and Kingdom of Dust followed the adventures of Isyllt, necromancer and spy, in a secondary world where magic is commonplace. Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, on the other, takes place largely in Vancouver—a Vancouver saturated with sinister Lovecraftian shadows.
Liz Drake’s dreams are different to other people’s. More real. When her best friend Blake drops out of touch, her nightmares get worse. Convinced he needs help, she and her partner Alex travel three thousand miles to find him—in a coma, in a Vancouver hospital bed, victim of a drowning accident that resulted in his lover’s death.
Blake was—is—an artist. Liz’s search to find out what really happened brings her among his guarded circle of peers, and to the attention of his patron, gallery-owner Rainier. They’re all hiding dangerous secrets: secrets connected to what happened to Blake, to the drug called Mania, and to the nightmare creatures beginning to stalk Vancouver’s shadows. In Liz’s dreams, Blake is drowning. In her dreams, she sees the streets of a city under a green sky, beneath the light of a red sun. She knows that she can still save him.
But at what cost?
Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is a baroque, creepy, gorgeous, atmospheric book. I keep wanting to find more adjectives, for there’s a layered, textured depth to the prose here, rich and velvety and dark. And while it acknowledges its Lovecraftian influences—its mythologies—with straightforward affection, its sensibilities are its own. (I mean, as far as I can tell. My familiarity with Lovecraftiana is a shallow, passing thing.) Normally I flee from the fantasy novel that sidles towards horror and embraces the unnerving: but with Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, Downum drew me in and kept me reading. Kept me glued.
There are at least six characters from whose point of view, at various points, the story is told. For such a relatively slender volume, this seems like a lot, but Downum exercises iron control over her narrative. Each of the characters illuminates some fresh aspect of the world, and of the growing horror within it: the ways in which nightmare and waking world are sliding ever closer together, the way in which the door Blake was—and now Liz is—trying to open presents a real and tangible threat to the things they care about. Liz, driven by her need to save her friend, and Alex, driven by his desire to support and protect Liz, are never less than fully-rounded characters. Blake, whose position in the narrative is akin to Eurydike in the Orphic myths, could easily have been a cipher, comes across as a very real, human individual. Rae, though her part in the narrative is more slight and symbolic, has a truly affecting heart-breaking arc: in many ways she parallels both Liz and Antja, and mirrors Blake—the not-quite-innocent caught up in things just outside their understanding or control, and transformed by them, whose choice is a fulcrum around which the story’s climax turns.
In a different novel—one simpler and less accomplished—Antja and Rainier would be villains, or at least antagonists. Rainier is pledged to the service of the Yellow King, and it’s his actions, his obsessions, and his mistakes that led to Blake’s current peril, and the dangers stalking the streets of Vancouver. (And Antja loves him, much like Alex loves Liz.) But Rainier is trying to help Blake, still, and both he and Antja are trying to figure out the right thing to do. Rainier is, in the end, far more of a tragic figure than a sinister one: he is Liz’s mirror, as Antja is Alex’s, and the reflections they cast on each other are really rather fascinating.
I loved Downum’s other work, but I didn’t expect to enjoy Dreams of Shreds and Tatters half as much as I did. Unexpectedly, I adored it. It’s darkly gorgeous, tense, and gripping, with compelling characters and a subtle, unnervingly psychological element to its fantasy-horror turn. And, delightfully, not without a sense of humour. I recommend it highly.
Please tell me there’ll be another novel like this.