(2014) C. Robert Cargill, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 409pp, ISBN 978-0-575-13016-6
The sequel to Dreams and Shadows, Cargillís second Colby Stevens novel, begins to invoke a parallel to Jim Butcherís 'Dresden Files' series. There is much different; the perspective and the mythos for a start, but the adventure with the central character as a constant pole changed only marginally by what affects him, is of similar fare.
The Queen of the Dark Things mythos owes something to Neil Gaiman and American Gods. We have the ancient re-translated and juxtaposed with the modern to create a new premise that mixes both, making the old relevant to the new. Cargillís setting is no darker than Butcherís, but the magical concepts are much more rarefied and in that respect, more magical. Cargill takes more risks with the deployment of his narrative as well. We have a historical opening, then the present timeline and part way through, a flashback to Colbyís early life in Australia and the life of Kacey Looes. This might have made for a book in itself, although I can see why it would be placed here.
The main part of the story picks up where Dreams and Shadowsleft off and the aftermath of these events plays out in the opening chapters. In a way this runs as a counter to the building plot of this book and the conclusions from the last feel somewhat unsatisfactory. Colby mourns his lost friend Evan, but events quickly take over, preventing him from dwelling on the whys and wherefores of what happened. As the story moves on, you get the feeling these concerns are set aside, rather than remaining with Colby and leaking back into his emotional state to make his choices that much more risky.
We also have some jumping around to include some collated essays and stories that are directly relevant to the situation at hand. This is something of a shame in part. The setting intrigues with its clear set of unknown rules. Unfortunately, the expositional extracts from ĎDr. Thaddeus Ray Ph.D, cuts against the building mythological layers with their dry explanations. However, some of the illustrative stories, written as legend, particularly the King Solomon stories, do add significant depth and the change of address works to locate the story amidst the real world. When books make use of characters from history and religion as part of their narrative a measure of success can be the way in which they encourage readers to reach beyond the novel to research the professed connection. This certainly works with the use of Solomon and by making the connection in this way, Cargill avoids the more obvious fantasy tropes that other writers embrace and re-interpret.
The main confrontation of the book is steeped with foreboding and foreshadowing. Demons and other spirits are summoned, prophets consulted all seemingly with a take on what might happen and what will happen. In each case, the choices available to Colby Stevens are reframed and reassessed. Every time no good options are available. This does leave his supporting cast of Gossamer, Yashar and Austin to adopt a familiar role of naysaying without coming up with alternatives. However, it does also serve to show how Queen of the Dark Things is not constrained by the painted binary of good and evil. There is an assortment of characters professing to be either and drawing a line to determine wrong from their right, but as we explore the morality of each, we find obvious discrepancies and flaws in their own application of their rules. Everyone holds an agenda and this colours the profusion of scenes where Colby seeks information and assistance. Until the last chapters reveal their secrets, there is no clear mentor character in morphological terms; instead we have informed persuaders, agents, temporal allies and more. This is undermined slightly by Yashar whose vehement opposition does seem to evaporate in one particular incident towards the end.
As the plot reaches its conclusion we also lose the grounding of the scenes in and reality is sacrificed for descriptions of Cargillís demonic creations. This absence of reference is unfortunate as much of Cargillís world is of the sort you can imagine happening as the shadows wage war whilst we walk passed, oblivious. This idea is prevalent in the book for the most part and this makes us mourn its departure in the final chapters.
Queen of the Dark Things does many things right and a few things wrong. The meeting and bargaining scenes become repetitive at times and the burden of exposition that does not enhance what we know, but instead codifies things we do not need codified are problematic. However, the clever way in which much of Colbyís solution to his dilemma plays out without it being wholly revealed to the reader shows Cargillís skill. There is also a rich mythology set up here, with many characters available for future use in stories. We are certainly interested in the characters and their adventures as well, finding them different from the usual fare of urban sorcery.
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