Wednesday, April 04, 2007

'The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters' by G.W. Dahlquist

For the past few months I've taken to listening to the BBC's 'Daily Mayo' podcast - or rather some of them. Every week one of the podcasts features a bunch of literary types reviewing some new books. Generally two books a week. Almost always they select books which are 'literary fiction' and which all the reviewers enthuse about at length.

A couple of months ago, one book divided the reviewers, some loved it, others didn't. Perhaps it says something about my character that, of all the books I've heard reviewed on the podcast, this is the only one I've bought for myself...

Midway through reading this book, my wife asked me what kind of book it was, what genre? I found it quite hard to find a simple answer to that question. Some reviews have described it as 'Victorian Sci-fi' which is probably accurate, but misleading. I think I'll stick with my eventual answer - its simply an 'Adventure' story.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, although it was frustrating at times and highly rude. It's certainly not an adventure story for kids!

So what's it about? Well, its set (for the most part) in 'the city' - somewhere that clearly is Victorian London, without actually being Victorian London. This is a city filled with posh hotels, parks and train stations that have never existed in London. Furthermore, when the story strays out of the city, we are taken to towns, railway stations and country houses that have never existed. But we have characters from England, Germany, France and other real places mixing here.

The story follows three very different characters: a young lady who came to the city to find a husband, a rogue for hire who is employed to kill a nobleman and a German naval doctor, who starts off in the retinue of a visiting German prince.

The book was originally published in ten smaller books, delivered in weekly installments. Each of the installments follows one of the three main characters, although they all come together in the fourth section, before going their separate ways again. These sections are not subdivided into chapters and each makes for quite a long read (especially the last one).

Fundamental to the books is the 'alchemical science' of the cabal of baddies who use the strange powers of a mineral called 'indigo clay' to empower, control and brainwash certain characters in the story. The powers of indigo clay or the blue glass which it can be made into are slowly revealed as the story goes on, so I won't spoil any of the surprises here. What we know initially (from the book cover, indeed) is that the blue glass can be used to store (or steal) the memories of people. What we also learn, early on, is that there is a 'process', using the blue glass, by which people are transformed into (apparently) more empowered, determined, ruthless and capable people than they had been before the process. Initially, it appears that those transformed by the process are driven by a heady cocktail of most of the seven deadly sins (most notably lust, pride and wrath) without being fettered by feelings of guilt or equivalent. But more is revealed as the book goes on.

While no mention of anything biblical is made in this book, I couldn't help but be reminded of Romans 1v21-32 when reading about the baddies in this book:
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

This kind of describes the folk who have been transformed by the process. It is against this that our three unlikely heroes find themselves fighting.

Along the way, as in all good stories, the three heroes also undergo a kind of transformation. The virgin Miss Temple finds out an awful lot about sex and sexual depravity, the killer 'Cardinal Chang' (neither a cardinal nor asian; long story) ends up saving people out of love and Dr Svenson ends up killing a lot of people, contrary to his own life-saving beliefs.

OK. Let's talk about sex. There appears to be an awful lot of sex in this book, but actually most of it doesn't happen. The first few sections of the book each appear to be building up to inevitable sexual encounters... which don't actually happen. In much of the middle section of the book the sexual encounters mentioned happen 'off screen', as it were, and are referred to but not described. On a few occasions in the book, the heroes witness the baddies in a few sexual acts, but these are not actually described in much detail - most is left to the imagination of the reader. But the baddies are people driven by lust, amongst other things, so they talk about it and refer to it and attempt to control others by it, so something implicitly sexual pervades quite a lot of this book. At one point Miss Temple wonders "if she has become the most depraved virgin in history" and that kind of says it all. But the book is not about sex, it is just a book full of sexual references. One further thought about sex before I move on to other aspects of the book. When 'given over' to their desires by the 'process' it appears that women are equally happy to engage in sexual encounters with other women as well as men, but the men feel no such urge... why is this?

Anyway, as we find out, sex is used by the baddies as a control mechanism on others, and the real plan of the baddies is to take control of key players in the government of both England and Germany. There's lots of to-ing and fro-ing, politics and backstabbing, a bit of swashbuckling, quite a lot of fighting and also quite a bit of that erudite word play that Victorians seem to engage in, usually while sitting in 'parlours' or 'drawing rooms'. All this is written, with relish, by a man who clearly has an excellent grasp of the English language. The story is, for the most part, really gripping and you really want to know what happens next... I found myself planning ahead to the next time I'd have an opportunity to read, and really appreciated the fact that I had four flights to various European locations in the past couple of weeks.

The book doesn't reveal things very quickly. It is a bit of a tease really - it hints at things but never goes for the full reveal until much later in the book. Indeed, some things are never revealed, and I, having finished the book now, found that quite annoying at the end. I am still left with questions.

Take the whole 'alchemical science' thing - who invented it? It is referred to as being 'old' and 'ancient' in the book, but how did the villains find out about it? And speaking as a scientist, I want to know how its supposed to work - there are machines and pipes and electricity and steam and furnaces and bellows, but no clear explanation (or even tantalising hints) about how the thing is supposed to actually work.

And what about the missing artist? OK, so I figured out what had actually happened to him quite a long time before it was revealed, but his back story isn't adequately painted in.

But most of this is nit-picking. For at least nine tenths of the book - that is, while you're immersed in the story - it is a highly enjoyable and gripping ride. Its just a shame that not everything is neatly sewn up at the end and that the ending itself is very abrupt. I want to know what happens next - there's not another novel there, but there is at least a half chapter missing where we should see how the remaining characters try to fit back into their old lives.

The book is not a book which tackles issues, but a few philosophical points are flirted with along the way. Are we simply the sum total of our experiences? If some of those experiences were taken away from us (so that we not only couldn't remember them, but didn't know that there was anything to remember) would we still be the same people? What if we could experience things that other people had experienced, and could remember their memories - would we then be different people? Or is there something inherently me that is independent of experience and memory?

For example, in the story, the virgin Miss Temple experiences the senstations of somone else's sexual encounter, and is left with the same memories that the other person had. She knows what it felt like and can remember it. Is she still a virgin after the experience? Given that she experienced and could remember the depravity of the others, would that make her depraved? In the book, the author seemed to think not. Miss Temple's resolve was even more against the villains after she shared their experience than before.

The problem I am left with after reading this book is can I recommend it to anyone? Certainly, I enjoyed it. But if I recommended it to you, would your opinion of me be changed?

You probably would enjoy it though.

Sorry for the extreme length of this posing. It wasn't intended. Next on my reading list is 'Ysabel' by Guy Gavriel Kay, my favourite author and the only author I have read multiple books by where I haven't been disappointed by any of his books... yet.

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