Screenwriter and former film critic C. Robert Cargill's urban fantasy novel creates a rich universe full of dangerous and fascinating characters, even if the main conflict over the fate of a young amnesiac falls limp.
Stop me if you've hear this one: somewhere, just outside of our field of vision and range of perception is the world of magic and infinite possibility; of strange, menacing creatures with their own laws and mores that occasionally prove fatal to us mere mortals. Cargill's "Dreams and Shadows" could easily have been a chosen one narrative about one its leads, Ewan, stolen away into the fairy-run Limestone Kingdom, or Colby, another boy whose wish to a cursed djinn profoundly reshapes both youths' lives profoundly. But it's far from rote: Cargill returns to the idea of nature and purpose and his characters attempting to outrun or escape the fates set before them (even if they don't always succeed).
As a child, Ewan is stolen away from his loving parents and replaced by the infant changeling Nixie Knocks, who grows into a bitter, haunted shadow of the original. Ewan himself seems perpetually doomed, first as a naive denizen of the Limestone Kingdom and later as an amnesiac would-be musician whose life is upended when a mysterious, beautiful woman comes to see him at the Austin dive bar where he works. But the character who really moves the story forward is Colby Stevens, whose wish to become a boy wizard blesses him with the ability to see the wonders of the world and curses him to see all of its secret horrors. Possessed with the kind of power that terrifies the fairy folk, he sets out to protect Ewan, even if the other young man doesn't know why the two are bound together.
The whole thing culminates in some sinister moves by Nixie to increase Ewan's misery and a battle between two opposing magical forces that never really feels personal or particularly motivated. The villainous Nixie never really has a chance (he's misshapen and it's in his nature to be cruel and horrible), but given how terrible Ewan's life has turned out, it feels like Cargill's heavy is simply trying to swat a gnat with a WMD. Colby, meanwhile, is such an interesting character that it's a shame his narrative is mostly used to prop up Ewan's story (what I wouldn't give for Cargill to have expanded on Colby and the djinn Yashar's journeys around the world).
The problem is that our two heroes exist in a state of constant manipulation by external forces, with characters like the sly, ageless trickster spirit Coyote pulling all of the strings, portents and divinations driving most of the plot. It's really only at the end during a peace negotiation where Colby makes the true scope of his power known that the story jumps out of the established groove and heads off into a wildly exciting direction.
A part of me also wants to take issue with the Mary Sue-ing of Austin Cargill engages in here, but really, I have to admire the amount of love and affection the writer gives to the city (his version is one made up of downtown sprawls of bars, clubs, and struggling musicians and artists constantly bathed in neon light). I ended up falling in love with it a little myself. Likewise, the Limestone Kingdom is such a wildly inventive piece of the story, home to creatures and endless beings that are dangerous, kind, violent, cruel, and wise--slaves to their magical nature in ways that prove fatal to humanity. Cargill's description of the pair of Wild Hunts--infernal attacks led by damned spirits riding giant goats--is alone a reason to pick up the book.
The last pages leave open the possibility that Colby (and the surviving characters) will return for more stories with a dramatically changed balance of power. I certainly hope so, because the world that Cargill has created here is too rich to abandon.
"Dreams and Shadows" is available now from Harper Voyager.