Dreams of Shreds and Tatters
I'm grateful to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.
"Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Before HP Lovecraft, there was Robert W Chambers whose short stories featuring The King in Yellow manage both to be spine chilling and to drip with a fin de siècle decadence that Lovecraft's later stories dropped in favour of out and out cosmic horror. In returning to the spirit of Chambers, and jettisoning much of Lovecraft's gambrelled language, Downum has created an impressively scary, world-weary narrative. While it's not perfect, this is a great read.
The story follows a group of artists - another Chambers trope that occurs in both his horror and other stories. It opens at Hallowe'en. There is an atmosphere of costume, of masks, of carnival. We're introduced to Blake and his partner Alain, two of the artists, and their mentor, Rainer. Downum skilfully portrays the tensions within the group and hints - with the appearance of those shadows - that more may be going on than simply artistic rivalry. And so it proves, and Blake's old friend Liz Drake, worrying because she hasn't heard from him for a while, arrives in Vancouver to investigate.
From that point the narrative is pretty much breakneck, involving devils, angels, ancient gods, a crime syndicate, the mysterious drug 'mania' which apparently gives access to a dreamworld that Liz has walked before, and much, much more. There is a cast of supporting characters - Liz's partner Alex, Rae, the mysterious Lailah - and my one criticism of the book would be that at times it can be hard to remember who is who: for me, Rae and Antja, Rainer's girlfriend, were too similar in character and motivation, to keep clear in my head, at least to begin with. But Liz in particular is so well realised that didn't really matter much. She's the one who has to perform the hero's quest, penetrate to the centre of the labyrinth and rescue the sleeping prince in a story that mashes up the tales of Theseus and the Minotaur, Orpheus and isis and Osiris with Chambers' original hints about the Yellow King. With regard to the latter, Downum successfully avoids saying too much about the King - much of the power of Chambers' stories is in hints and fragments and I've read other stories that totally ruin the effect by giving too much detail.
Another mistake she avoids is letting the story go too far into urban fantasy - which would, I think, make the supernatural enemies seem too neatly categorised and therefore not scary enough. There was a moment when I thought is was going that way - when we are told that 'like many younger cities in the new world, Vancouver lacked entrenched magical order...' and a Brotherhood is mentioned, but Downum handles these elements carefully as part of a whole which really works well.
She's also pretty erudite - we get chunks of Beowulf quotes as a sheer breadth of vocabulary which kept my Kindle looking up new words (Liz is a linguist, so this really makes sense). I now know what limerence, Deucalion, Utnapishtim and lagniappe are: I didn't manage to get a specific answer on witch boots but that one I can guess. There are also sly allusions to Lovecraft (the café Al Azrad, references to planes and angles) beyond the obvious subject matter. But apart from games like that, Downum can write - describing a "voice veined with smugness" or Liz's arrival in the dreamworld:
"...darkness ebbed, washing Liz ashore like so much driftwood. Her limbs were heavy, her head soft and dull and dream-sticky. Cold stone gouged her shoulder blades and leeched the warmth from her flesh: her hands and feet were numb. Her skin was tender and sunburn-raw. The rush of her pulse deafened her."
Downum generally manages though to avoid over-purple prose and has a nice way of brining her characters back down to earth (or whatever planet they're on). Liz "wore the T-shirt and underwear she'd fallen asleep in. Tourists never knew how to dress fot the local weather."
In short, this book is readable and engaging, with a well realised setting, good use of language and a driving, relentless plot. Strongly recommended.