The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist
While I’ve forgotten the name of the publication, I first saw The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters in a magazine ad–and so it made its way onto the list. Because I had picked it up from a biased source and it seemed to be a love it or hate it book, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to picking it up. When I took it home from the library, I was a bit perturbed to discover a glowing author blurb from Diana Gabaldon, a woman who considers writing fanfiction immoral and tantamount to writing creepy porn about her daughter and then sending it to her. (And yet she fully admits to basing her hero on Jamie from Doctor Who. Will wonders never cease?) It was not, as you can imagine, the most auspicious start.
Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters starts off with a letter–Miss Celeste Temple’s engagement to Roger Bascombe is suddenly severed with no warning. A very practical woman, Miss Temple is not so much offended as curious as to why, and decides to follow Roger to a ball–a ball that acts as a cover for the activities of the mysterious and sinister Cabal Roger has attached himself to. At the same ball, killer for hire Cardinal Chang (who is neither of the clergy or Asian) discovers his mark has already been killed, and Doctor Svenson, in charge of the wayward Prince Karl-Horst of Macklenburg, finds himself removed from his charge. As all three discover more about the Cabal, especially their horrifying Process that bends anyone to their will, they decide join forces to take it down–three of them against a group of the most powerful people in the land.
In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, author David Mitchell discussed the difficulty of writing period language–it needs to be modern enough to flow to a modern reader’s ear, but be period enough to sound authentic. While I’ve heard much made of Dahlquist’s penchant for imagery, I thought he was right on the money with the language. It’s very poised and proper, especially from Miss Temple’s perspective, and the imagery flows beautifully. I wasn’t in love with it when I started, but it grew on me as the book went on, especially towards the end. While this novel is too long to recommend solely for the imagery, it’s well worth considering. The Glass Book of the Dream Eaters is a long book, clocking in at 760 pages. While I quite enjoyed Dahlquist’s plotting and delicious twists, it’s definitely a novel that could have been whittled down a bit. Dahlquist overlaps the time covered in each chapter, which I usually find demolishes tension in work that’s faster paced, but Dahlquist–a playwright–manages to use it to increase the tension and keep you turning pages until you, miraculously, find yourself at page 760, albeit a few days later.
The setting of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is willfully vague, although it’s obvious that it’s set in Victorian London or something like it. While it can be a bit cloying at times (why bother obscuring London if you’re going to reference France and Germany?), it does allow Dahlquist to exaggerate Victorian London as much as he pleases. (Indeed, there’s something mildly camp about the proceedings, in the best of ways.) The novel is billed, in its product description, as an “erotic, literary adventure”, which did make me roll my eyes a bit. While there is plenty of sex (the Cabal uses it to lure and maintain members), it’s not the point–control and power is. There’s also a sensuous nature to the novel that, combined with the oppression of the time period, works quite well. However, I can see where the sexual content might turn some people off, especially since nearly all of it comes from our villains and runs through the whole novel.
The characters are remarkably vivid. I particularly loved Miss Temple, who is so determinedly practical that when she is, understandably, upset over being dumped, she rationalizes it out into absolutely anything else but that. (I especially like that she didn’t enjoy art, for some reason–it felt, I don’t know, refreshing!) Cardinal Chang, while definitely a murderer, enjoys poetry, prides himself on his red coat, and nurses a passion for a prostitute under the sway of the Cabal. Dr. Svenson is an intellectual ex-Navy surgeon reduced to making sure the Prince doesn’t make too much of a fool of himself, but soon finds himself questioning both his motivation and his life choices. But it was only until the end of the novel that I realized Dahlquist had done something that can be difficult with a large cast–each character, hero or villain, is distinct. While the Contessa Lacquer-Sforza, one of the Cabal’s ringleaders, can be archly villainous, you feel she does it because she enjoys doing it, not because she’s written flatly. I’m almost tempted to say that this is a side-effect of Dahlquist being a playwright, but I can’t be sure.
Bottom line: While it definitely could have been whittled down, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is a Victorian Gothic adventure that boasts a remarkably vivid cast and beautiful imagery. Well worth the rental.
I rented this book from the public library.