The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
was recommended to me on the basis of it being an historical mystery but I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that it was a massively fun mash-up of genres in a Victorian setting. Historical mystery, yes, but also some Jane Austen romance, steampunk, horror a la Machen/Le Fanu, and the action and adventure of Saturday matinees from the days of yore.
The story begins with Miss Celeste Temple receiving a letter from her fiancée Roger Bascombe stating that their impending marriage has been cancelled and their relationship ended. We go right into the Jane Austen stuff.
Such rejection had quite simply never occurred to her. The manner of dismissal she barely noticed – indeed, it was just how she would have done such a thing (as in fact, she had, on multiple galling occasions) – but the fact of it was stinging. She had attempted to re-read the letter, but found her vision blurred – after a moment she realized she was in tears.
Miss Temple deals with the shock of someone of her standing being treated so poorly by following Roger in order to find out whatever could be the matter. Her cloak and dagger routine leads her to discover that he is going to attend a masked ball and so she decides to find an appropriate costume and crash the party. This involves a train and a carriage ride during which Miss Temple is unable to gather much about the ball.
She finds herself at a very large mansion and in the middle of something not too far removed from Eyes Wide Shut
. Instead of pure carnality, this soiree also involves an infernal machine which seemingly brainwashes its victims who are, in this case, all comely young women. Our heroine affects a narrow escape through her wit and a large dose of derring do which sees her wandering the mansion and witnessing even more oddities including a man who appears to be some kind of military attaché passed out on a bed with very odd marks that look like burns around his face.
Miss Temple catches a train back to the city (the location is never divulged but would appear to be a steampunk version of London). Her fellow passenger is a greasy man clad in an ostentatious red leather topcoat and tinted spectacles. This is Cardinal Chang. Chang is no Oriental but rather got the name from the scars on his eyelids with the "Cardinal" bit coming from his red leather. He is, however, a rogue and a villain.
...his working week was divided into a reliably Spartan routine: the Library, the coffeehouse, clients, excursions on behalf of those clients, the baths, the opium den, the brothel, and bill collecting, which often involved revisiting past clients in a different (to them) capacity.
It just so happens that he was also returning from the very same mansion that drew Miss Temple and her investigation.
Chang, however, was there for a very different purpose, namely, to murder someone. He'd been hired to killing one Arthur Trapping by a fellow military officer of the 4th Dragoons, a military regiment that had recently been mysteriously reassigned to various domestic duties. After introducing us to Chang, Dahlquist then recounts the events of the night he spent at the mansion from his point of view. This fills in some of the gaps in Miss Temple's account and introduces us to more of the bad guys.
Our third hero is Doctor Abelard Svenson from Macklenburg, presumably some fictional Hanseatic city. He is a chain-smoking intellectual who is fiercely loyal to his lord. He finds himself part of the retinue of Prince Karl-Horst von Massmarck, who is heir to the Duchy of Macklenburg. His job is to keep the drunken lout in good enough health to marry Lydia Vandaariff, daughter of a powerful and very rich aristocrat.
Svenson was at the mansion, which belongs to Lord Vandaariff – Lydia's father, that night as well and we get to witness events from his point of view which fill in even more details surrounding the alliances that Karl-Horst's marriage to Lydia would forge.
This trio eventually ally themselves with one another and set out to defeat a sinister cabal of aristocrats and highly-placed government official which is intent on – what else? – taking over the world. The dastardly plans involve the infernal contraption above derived from the painting of a mad alchemical artist. It works with a mysterious indigo clay that has some remarkable properties. Together they have the ability to read and record people's thoughts in the titular tomes as well as unleash the mental powers of those in its grip. The device and the books also set their victims on the primrose path, which I wasn't expecting. While we're not talking pornography here, there are some decidedly salacious moments that are at loggerheads with the prim and proper Victorian facade.
Setting aside the conspiracies and the steampunk trappings, what you have here is a great adventure story. Dahlquist had packed his tale full of close calls, cliffhangers, and narrow escapes. The pattern is set in the very first chapter. One of our heroes sets out to investigate and finds him or herself ensnared by the cabal but is able to escape just in the nick of time before being dispatched with by one or another villain. Miss Temple uses her wits and gets a little bit of luck to escape the clutches of two assassins after she is discovered at the ball; Chang sildes down an exhaust stack just in the nick of time; and Svenson perilously holds onto a rope for dear life dangling from a zeppelin. While this sounds boring and repetitive, Dahlquist writes a very good Victorian English and has given us three interesting characters who slowly uncover the full extent of the danger before them. And since most of the text finds them working alone, it's something of a puzzle to piece together exactly how all of their discoveries fit in with those of their colleagues.
All three of our heroes are outcasts in their own way and all have a lost love. Miss Temple hails from an unnamed island and Roger Bascombe was her ticket to a stable life and respectability. Because of his scars, Chang takes up a life on the fringe of polite society and has feelings for a whore whom he can never truly possess but, unfortunately, the evil cabal can. Svenson is basically a dutiful servant, not a member of the Macklenburg aristocracy, and he has only memories of his love who passed away. They all grow and change in their own way as well. While Chang is used to the rough'n'tumble stuff, Miss Temple and Svenson have to find the courage to take on evil and even kill. For his part, Chang must get used to operating in concert with and to trust others.
In between all the chases and fights, Dahlquist allows his characters moments of introspection and even throws in some humor such as when Miss Temple witnesses the memories of a woman engaged in sexual intercourse via one of the glass books and questions whether she has lost her own virtue. She is perhaps the most complicated character. Having seen the least of the world, she is the most shocked at the evils that men (and women) do. And while she still feels bound to propriety, needs must when the devil drives.
Despite being 800+ pages, I zipped through The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
and now must find the sequel, The Dark Volume
Labels: Books, Fiction, Gordon Dahlquist, Steampunk