Gordon Dahlquist’s 2006 novel THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS is the first book I finished in 2009, although you might easily guess from its length (784 pages) that I read most of it in 2008. I’d been looking at it for a while in the library, generally passing it up for something more urgent or more portable; I’m a sucker for a good title, and the blurb from Diana Gabaldon — “This is the most original thing I’ve read in years: deftly executed, relentlessly inventive, and with a trio of the most unusual and engaging heroes who ever took on a sinister cabal out to rule the world by means of sex and dreams” — sold it pretty hard. (I have to admit, though, the blurb almost put me on the cabal’s side; sex and dreams seem like much more benign implements of conquest than, say, blood and fire. Perhaps we will expand on this later.)

In any event, I was a little disappointed.

The book is very, very slow. (Admittedly, I didn’t want to carry such a gigantic thing to campus, so I was reading it for 20-minute intervals at breakfast, not my usual MO — maybe that increased my irritation.) There are a lot of reasons for this. The aforementioned 784 pages cover three characters’ experiences in ten chapters over a period of a few days; Dahlquist has done a good job at filling the days with incident, but inevitably each moment feels a bit overexamined. More, the torrent of incident feels a bit like a torrent of spackle. The heroes, unusual though they may be (and only one really is), are thrown together by coincidence, with ill-defined objectives, and yet never show any hint of the tension or betrayal that even the most workmanlike thriller knows to employ as leavening. The villains, likewise, never catch our sympathies, which perhaps exacerbates the extreme difficulty of differentiating one from another at all — somehow the names, though gleaned from diverse parts of Europe, blend together, denaturing the revelations of secret identities and the killer of the murdered flunky on whom this whole thing apparently turns. And, likewise, there is no seductive upside to the inimical Process (the real means by which the villains plan their conquest; the sex and dreams are — SPOILER ALERT! — not really! — more or less epiphenomenal). The plot is convoluted, but to no apparent end; the heroes are plucky and outnumbered, the villains are megalomaniacal and murderous (except when it comes to the heroes, whom they insist on assaulting with the equivalent of sharks with laser beams on their heads), and which side lays waste to the other is entirely predictable.

Two things do recommend this book. One is its imagery; Dahlquist obviously has a fertile visual imagination and exerts it with some care to render the Victorian setting and the hideous ritual surrounding the Process. I’m guessing it’s this talent that led to the $2,000,000 advance quoted on Wikipedia (about 40% of which Bantam apparently failed to recover–although Amazon does refer to the book as an “international bestseller”). The other, related, is the scarred killer Cardinal Chang, who has the feel (curious in a novel) of an actor on whom the script is wasted. He is miscast, in some sense; Dahlquist took a nightmare vision and slighted the best things about him in making him a hero. Still, Chang may yet drag me back into the upcoming sequel, THE DARK VOLUME — as long as I can get it from the library.

Read instead: PERDIDO STREET STATION (urban fantasy); JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL (Victorian fantasy); JHEREG and sequels (fast-paced conspiracy fantasy).



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