January 21, 2007

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

I need to preface this post with several admissions:
1. I've been looking forward to reading this book for months and was ready to enjoy it regardless of its quality.
2. This is not a review of the book as a whole. It is a review of the first 100 pages.
3. I have never failed to finish a book because I found it to be unreadably bad. Until now.

I am now finding myself at a loss - for a way to begin and for words succinct and effective enough to make my point without making me sound like a literary hell harpy. So, for lack of a better place, I'll begin at the beginning with the author's own words.
Dahlquist, who is an accomplished playwrite, begins his first novel with the following sentence:

"From her arrival at the docks to the appearance of Roger's letter, written on crisp Ministry paper and signed with his full name, on her maid's silver tray at breakfast, three months had passed".

A little muddy. Forgivable, but a little muddy. He continues:

"On that morning, her poached eggs steaming in their silver bowl (gelatinous, gleaming), Miss Temple had not seen Roger Bascombe for seven days."

A little muddier and featuring some questionable sentence structure. I'm getting a slight sinking feeling in my stomach at this point, but it doesn't matter because I *want* to enjoy this book. It continues on in the vein and all the while, the author indulges in convoluted and unclear sentences meant to convey a Victorian sense of social minutia. Unfortunately he succeeds only in confusing the reader as to what is happening, why and to whom. Then, four pages in I'm stopped short by the following sentence:

"How, if she was with clarity embracing her new sense of loss and redefinition, did nothing - not even an especially cunning lacquered duck - generate interest?"

Ok. At this point I am with no small amount of "clarity", realizing that I'm only four pages into this book and already tired of the author's overly precious and highly contrived sentence structure and narrative style. It's as if he read Dickins once, maybe in college, and vaguely remembered that distinctive, sometimes chatty, Dickensian voice and thought it would be really neat to use it in his story, a story which is vaguely reminicent of Victorian penny-dreadfuls...and not in a good way.

Alright. So the style badly apes Dickens. Style is difficult and trying to make your modern authorial voice speak in a highly embellished Victorian tone would be very, very difficult. It doesn't mean the story (or at least the first 100 pages of it) is bad. Right? The characters could very easily redeem the entire thing and make it quite worth the read. Right? Perhaps...but not this time.

The Characters:
Once again I freely admit that I only read the first 100 pages, so I've only met two of the central characters: Miss Temple and Cardinal Chang. I'll begin with Miss Temple because Dahlquist begins with her. Barring the twisting maze of egregious embellishment, the author describes her as small, grey-eyed and of above average prettiness. Fine. Victorian heroines often are. She is also an heiress. Excellent. Victorian heroines in thrilling stories need money and security if they are going to have an adventure worth reading about. We are told that she is also intelligent, independent, spunky and ruthless. Dahlquist writes:

"it [her island upbringing] had marked her like a whip - though part of that marking was how very immune to whips she was and would, she trusted, remain".

All of these are excellent qualities for a fictitious heroine to have. Unfortunately, while we are *told* and told often that she is all of these things, the behavior that she *displays* led me to the conclusion that she is petty, arrogant, delusional and Stupid. After bumbling herself into a situation that any sane person would see as bloody dangerous for a chaste young woman alone in a sinister place (ie: interogation by beautiful women with knives, stumbling across unconcious bodies and being told to put on crotchless, yet "darling", silk pants) it isn't until she is actually in the process of getting raped (which she avoids through sheer dumb luck and the power of the plot) that she admits to herself that she's in a "dangerous spot" and should possibly "act carefully". I can't say that I was compelled to spend any more time with such an Idiot of a heroine. Luckily I didn't have to because at this point, Dahlquist switches his focus to one of the book's other "heroes".

Moving on to Cardinal Chang. Hmmm.... I bet there's a neat story behind that character's name. Well, there's a story. Cardinal Chang is neither a Cardinal nor Chinese. He is a "brutal assassin", with the "heart of a poet". Fine. I think that an assassin with qualities beyond the ability to kill people in creative ways has the potential to be quite interesting. He got the name "Chang" because when he was very young (though from a family of means) a young aristocrat slashed his face with a riding crop, damaging his vision and giving him scars across the bridge of his nose and eyes that make him appear "oriental". This gives Dahlquist a reason to give him super-sexy glasses with smoked lenses (he's light sensitive and he doesn't see very well. Yet he's an assassin). Chang is called "The Cardinal" because he wears a super-sexy, full length, Red Leather Coat (which he had stolen "from the costume rack of a traveling theater". Of course). A little conspicuous for an assassin you might ask? Well, lest the reader labor on under this misconception, Dahquist explains straight away that Chang feels this to be alright because anyone who wished to find him would, even if he was wearing "the drabbest grey wool". Not bloody likely, but Dahlquist obviously Loved the red leather coat. Finally, Dahlquist, in an effort to render his assassin three-dimentional, often interrupts Chang's thought processes with bits of bad poetry, for although it now hurts Chang to read, before his eyes had been damaged as a "child" he had been a "scholar" and has retained his love for the written word. A child scholar? Amazing! At this point, the sheer force of Dahlquist's contrivances finished me and I put the book down. From what I've read (and it's admittedly only an introduction to the character) Cardinal Chang is the culmination of all the things that a 12 year old boy or a 16 year old girl would think an assassin should be. I've seen more skillfully developed RPG characters.

After only 100 pages, I don't feel that I can speak to plot as I hadn't really seen much of one. The threat of the "sinister cabal" is as vague and muddy as the sentence structure. Items that were clearly meant to create suspense (ie: strange masked balls, private operating theaters and slashed clothing) left me feeling either unsatisfied or confused or incredulous.

Ultimately, I put the book down because it became painfully obvious that Dahlquist didn't know what he was talking about. He clearly did not study the narrative style he tried so hard to emulate. He clearly did not research the reality of being a young woman in a Victorian-type society. He clearly did not research the psychology involved in the adoption of a life as a professional killer or the requirements of such a life. Most damningly, he clearly did not think thoroughly enough to convincingly create the alternative society his readers are supposed to immerse themselves in. The first 100 pages of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters read like a higly contrived and self indulgent first draft. Self-indulgence in first drafts is acceptable. It is not however, acceptable in anything people have to pay money to read. I simply cannot imagine forcing myself through another 700 pages of the same. Not even during Lent.


JimDesu said...

Wow, and she ain't just whistlin' dixie either. Actually, with what I saw of the book, I'd say she was bending over backwards to be fair and balanced -- charitable, even.

JimDesu said...

In fact, although I know book people don't like this sort of thing, I think perhaps she should have a special rating just for this book: "kindling".

Madeleine said...

While the idea of turning any book into kindling makes me kind of squirrelly, I do have to say that this one was particularly bad. That said, I can honestly say that it has one good quality - it's a first rate negative role model. This sucker is hanging around to remind me of what *not* to do in my own writing. As an object lesson, you can't beat it.

coffespaz said...

Kudos for turning a negative into a positive! I am terribly sorry that such a long awaited delight actually turned into a disappointment. That bites.

JimDesu said...

Krista, let me assure you that nothing could turn this book into a positive. As a negative role model, the book has simply been promoted to a lesser travesty.

coffespaz said...

EWWWW....that makes it even worse. Maddie, you are right, its rare to find a tome THAT bad!! Thank goodness there are so many more to chose from! :-)

Annamaria said...

Um...ouch? Now a long-winded book does not necessarily have to be this bad (case in point, The Historian and The Lord Of The Rings, just to name two), but wow...I am glad this book was totally under my horizon and so it shall remain. I am re-reading my Complete Sherlock Holmes and Laurie King's Mary Russell mysteries instead...:-)

Madeleine said...

Personally, I actually like big thick 'ol books - I get really involved in the story and like to hang out there for awhile. The Historian and Lord of the Rings are great examples. I also finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell the night before I started Glass Books of the Blah Blahs and actually wished it was longer...so I completely agree that length has little to do with it. It's all about content - if the content supports a long narrative, you're set. If not, it might just be a lemon.
On a side note Anna, I love the Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes relationship. Have you read Monstrous Regiment of Women yet? Laurie King's books are really pretty great, but I have to admit that I never get tired of reading and rereading the Conan Doyle stories...

Annamaria said...

Heh. It is scary how much our taste runs in the same vein, you know...:-) The new Mary Russell novel in the series came out not too long ago, so I will have to get it soon to complete my collection; but "Monstrous Regimen" was my favorite, no doubt.

Madeleine said...

That's my favorite too :-) It is kind of interesting how close our tastes run...makes me look forward even more to living near you!

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. True, the red leather coat cracked me up (yes, all assassins need a highly unusual and easily recognizable accessory) but to me the book requires no more suspension of disbelief than a retired Sherlock Holmes becoming instant friends with a 15-year-old girl who will, of course, be as smart as he. I didn't expect a "Victorian-type society" and I don't consider it one. Heck, perhaps I liked it because I didn't really expect it to bear a whole lot of resemblance to reality.
Mind you, "Jonathan Strange" is almost impossible to beat in terms of bringing the feeling of a particular historical moment to the page; if I'd expected Dream Eaters to be that I would have been terribly disappointed.
As far as the female protagonist is concerned, she is *supposed* to be stupidly naive. Her complete lack of preparation for this sort of thing is stressed from the beginning.
As for style, I read Lovecraft for entertainment, so obviously I have a weakness for adverb-heavy prose.
It's nowhere near the best book I've ever read, but there are a fair number under it in quality (Queen of the Damned, Valley of Horses,American Psycho, The Stand... Need I mention The Bridges of Madison County?)
In any case, I think Glass Books suffered from being compared to things it was never meant to be compared to.

Madeleine said...

Oh, but Amanda...I was reading it for its own merit, not to compare it to other books of its general type. I also reviewed it (or the first hundred pages anyway) on its own merit, which I *personally* found to be lacking. It really just comes down to the fact that whether or not the heroine was meant to be unprepared (or a naive idiot), doesn't matter to me. I found her to be absolutely and completely unlikable and terribly contrived. Actually, I found the portion that I read to be painfully contrived, in general. As for the style, I tend to like florid prose myself - when it's *well done*, as it is in Interview with a Vampire, Dickens (most of the time) and the Brontes to name a few. I felt that Dahlquist's execution of that style was clumsy at best and contributed painfully to that sense of the whole being painfully contrived.
It's also not the suspension of disbelief that the book might require that's a problem (I love Tolkein but I don't believe in a magical place called Middle Earth) - it's that he failed (in my opinion) to create a fictional world that I could believe in. And that's particularly bad because he's the one who imagined it in the first place.
Anyway, I'm willing to concede that it may get better after the first 100 pages. What I read stood on its own, without comparison to other works (including Jonathan Strange), and totally failed to interest, impress or even do the minimum I ask of a book - compell me to read more. And did I mention I *really* wanted to like it? I mean, it was supposed to be a thrilling, erotic adventure - how up my ally should that be? :(

coffespaz said...

I have to give both you and Anna kudos on even tackling such reading.

Currently, my personal choice is something along the lines of Sophia Kinsella. I think this is mainly due to the fact that I just finished one document and literature heavy graduate degree, and am starting another whereby 50-100 pages of tax law are a required minimum...and this is just the first course!

However, I must admit that, when I am "normal" I do love to read such classics as Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Shakespear, Edgar Allen Poe...etc. One day...in the distant future I fear...I will rejoin the world of such literate individuals as yourselves. :-)

Madeleine said...

But when you get down to it, reading should be enjoyable and if you're up to your neck in tax law (eek), I'd say something a little lower pressure than half the western canon is definitely required :-)

amanda said...

Nope, I'm still not going to concede that it was THAT bad.
He had better concepts than most writers, and had he been properly edited a lot of the problems would have been at least lessened.

Madeleine said...

Fair enough - if you enjoyed it, I'm not going to talk you out of it...I'm just not going to concede my point either :-) Hee!