Full disclosure: AICN readers of the past few years all know C. Robert Cargill. As Massawyrm he wrote many movie reviews, and a column about paper-and-dice gaming called AICN Tabletop. He’s a longtime friend of Harry’s, and I consider him a close friend as well. I actually didn’t (and in some respects still don’t) feel comfortable reviewing his first novel because of our friendship. You should take that into account when reading this review. It’s funny, the lines are certainly blurring these days in regards to sites like ours and the relationships they have with talent, especially talent that’s come from an Internet background. Cargill wasn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last. I know a lot of my writer friends are making that shift from criticism to outright storytelling and filmmaking, and I’ll likely have this debate for quite some time.
But unlike a film, which is made by committee, DREAMS AND SHADOWS comes straight from Cargill’s mind. Frankly, if the story didn’t work, I wouldn’t hesitate to let him know – friends do that. But the story does work. It works so well, in fact, that I’m a little angry right now – it’s the anger I always feel when I read a really great book and kick myself for not having written that. Cargill explores the darker corners of fairy tales and in DREAMS AND SHADOWS creates a fantasy universe that feels like it could spring into being at any moment. Fans of the urban fantasy of Jim Butcher will find some recognizable elements in DREAMS AND SHADOWS, but Cargill gives his world a genuine weight of reality that makes the novel feel like it’s some kind of alternate history book. There are rich characters in DREAMS AND SHADOWS, so fully realized that the reader cannot help but feel empathy for even the most loathsome of them. They are helpless to their role, and while Cargill very much sees the patterns inherent in these kinds of stories, he also skillfully maneuvers through them. Readers who feel like they may be able to predict the path of the road Cargill sets them on will be very surprised indeed.
DREAMS AND SHADOWS centers around two characters, Ewan and Colby. Ewan is a child lost in a world of fairy – when he was a baby Ewan was replaced by a changeling, which drove his mother mad and destroyed his family. Ewan was never made aware of these events, living in the world of fairy during the next eight years, being raised as a lamb to slaughter. For the Fae of the Limestone Kingdom, the fairylands surrounding Austin, Texas, have a price to pay for their immortality, and Ewan fits the bill. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Colby Stevens, neglected by his single mom, meets the djinn Yashar, who grants the eager boy his deepest wish – to see everything, to see all the corners of what reality might be. Yashar, a cursed genie whose wishes all turn to ill, must grant it, and in doing so, Colby loses his innocence forever. But Colby meets Ewan and bonds with him, as childhood friends do, and that’s probably the furthest I should go with the plot without spoiling many of the surprises within.
I’ve known Cargill for a long time, and talked with him for hours about movies, books, gaming, and other things. But I was shocked when I read DREAMS AND SHADOWS because the voice of the book didn’t seem to mesh with the Cargill that I know. The Cargill I know is enthusiastic about subjects he has a passion about, but as a storyteller, he’s slow, methodical, patient, and above all, careful. Those are all compliments, by the way – Cargill slowly sets the stakes in DREAMS AND SHADOWS that when events start to spiral beyond the control of the characters, there’s a surety to the prose that keeps the reader intensely involved. It’s as confident a first novel as I’ve ever read, and comparisons in quality to the work of Neil Gaiman, or Lord Dunsany, or Mervyn Peake, are not accidental.
Cargill has done his research, examining the faerie world like a biologist looks in a petri dish. The world Cargill has created feels so thoroughly researched that he gives DREAMS AND SHADOWS a feeling of verisimilitude – if this world isn’t “real,” well then it ought to be. Cargill brings that meticulous nature to the characters as well; from the heroic Colby, to the naïve Ewan, to the villainous changeling Nixie Knocks, to the tragic Vashar, to the helpless Sidhe Mallaidh - all are fully realized creations made richer with Cargill’s elegant prose. Yashar, esepcially, has a sadness about him that is difficult to shake and I couldn't help but compare him to Gollum, although tonally they are nothing alike. Both fill that role of the tragic monster, that creature who knows his role but is helpless to break from it, and Cargill gives Yashar a sweet melancholy.
The last hundred pages I read on a tear, always the sign to me of a well-written, riveting story, and Cargill brings all the plot strands together deftly and skillfully. Again, I find myself feeling a strange disconnect between the Cargill I know and the Cargill that wrote this novel. I really didn’t know he had this in him. But I’m so glad that he did. C. Robert Cargill is a fantasist of the highest order, and I’ll happily walk those dark roads in these worlds that he creates. Currently he’s hard at work on the follow-up to DREAMS AND SHADOWS and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for these characters. All those years of playing Dungeons and Dragons, spinning effortless stories and fairy tales, has paid off for our Massawyrm. Now, he gets to be the guide through our dreams as well. I’d call him a lucky bastard, but luck has nothing to do with it. DREAMS AND SHADOWS is a hell of a first novel, and no one who loves fantasy storytelling should miss it. Neil Gaiman would be proud.