“To the great distress of my only available relative, I have been thrust into the company of two men at the very border — if that — of respectability. This morning we were strangers. In this instant all three of us are without sanctuary. What I want — in fact demand — is that we make quite clear what we each hope to achieve in this matter, what masters we serve — in short, what is our agreement.”
She waited for their reaction. The two men were silent.
“I do not find the request excessive,” said Miss Temple.
Svenson nodded at her, looked to Chang and muttered, groping in his pocket. “Excuse me — a cigarette — it will distract from the altitude, this sea of vacant space —” He looked back at Miss Temple. “You are correct. It is most sensible. We do not know each other — chance has thrown us together.”
“Can we not do this later?” asked Chang, his tone clinging to the merest edge of civility.
“When would that be?” answered Miss Temple. “Do we even know where we are going next? Have we decided how best to act? Who to pursue? Of course we haven’t, because we have each made assumptions from our very different experiences.”
Chang exhaled, vexed. After a moment, he nodded sharply, as if to invite her to begin. (pp. 239-240).
Is The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (2006) by Gordon Dahlquist steampunk or gaslamp? It’s not an easy question to answer, although I’ll venture to say that this imaginative and massive first novel is primarily gaslamp fantasy, with strong currents of steampunk, pulp-style action-adventure, and Victorian eroticism — a challenging balancing act that Dahlquist, for the most part, carries off extraordinarily well. The novel didn’t get the widespread recognition it deserved when it first came out in hardback, although its re-issue in two paperback volumes has been garnering it more attention from the general public. Its sequel, The Dark Volume, will be released in a two more weeks.
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters follows its three mismatched protagonists out of an unnamed city and into the labyrinthine and forbidding depths of Harschmort Manor, where a dark cabal of powers mesh alchemy and technology into cerulean glass books designed to seduce and destroy the nation’s foremost citizens. All three characters have lost someone they love, and all three come to grips with that loss and with their own renewed sense of mission as they work together to attain their diverse goals.
The central character of the novel is unquestionably Miss Celestial Temple, a strong-minded, well-to-do young lady in her twenties who has recently left her father’s island plantation to come to the city and marry. But her fiance, Roger Bascombe, has broken the engagement without offering any explanation, and Miss Temple is determined to find out why. Not because she wants him back, of course — she is too proud for that, although she can’t help but feel a certain painful emptiness inside when she considers him — but because it’s in her nature not to be satisfied until she understands what has happened. However, Miss Temple’s intrepid pursuit of Bascombe on a train full of masked and cloaked strangers plunges her into a bizarre and remote engagement party where she is captured, interrogated, and then sent to be ravished and killed — but turns the tables on her captors and escapes, battered but intact, to take the train back to the city. And it is on that train, with bruises around her neck and blood staining her dress, that her defiant gaze meets that of fellow passenger Cardinal Chang.
Cardinal Chang is a killer-for-hire, his scarred eyes hidden by smoked lenses and a utilitarian razor tucked into the red coat that gives him the name “Cardinal.” (The “Chang” derives from the scars around his eyes, the result of a bar brawl and a young aristocrat’s whip.) A ruthless killer who savors poetry and a sense of honor, Cardinal Chang had traveled to the masque only to find out that the man he’d been sent to kill was already dead. In his subsequent inquiries, he discovers that his secret love, the beautiful whore Angelique, has been subjected by the cabal to a terrible and possibly fatal experiment. It’s while searching for her that he sees, for the first time, Dr. Abelard Svenson, who is searching to Prince Karl-Horst von Maasmärck of the Duchy of Macklenburg.
Dr. Abelard Svenson’s wearisome job is to play babysitter to the Macklenburg prince, who has traveled from his country to marry the daughter of wealthy and powerful Lord Vandaariff. But then the prince mysteriously vanishes from a garret room, leaving behind only a small card of blue glass that, which Svenson picks it up, draws his mind into its scandalously erotic scene, immersing him within the lascivious sensations of the woman involved. A clue discerned within the scene starts Svenson on a search for his prince that nearly gets him killed and finally leads him back to a hotel where he runs into both Miss Temple and Cardinal Chang.
And thus the three protagonists finally speak, some 213 pages into the hardback version of the novel, and agree to work together to unravel the mystery of the blue glass books and the political plot that threatens to quietly and insidiously overwhelm both the country they are in — which is never named, although one assumes it is England — and the Germanic Duchy of Macklenburg.
If The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters has any weakness, it’s in the author’s decision to follow each character’s progress to those occasional meeting-points, leaping back in time with Cardinal Chang and bringing him to a nexus-point, and then leaping back in time with Svenson until bringing him to the nexus-point, and then back again with Miss Temple. Thus, after our three heroes separate around page 263 of the hardback, it takes another 411 pages before they are all able to converse together again. True, each character’s story is interesting in itself. They each character possess admirable strengths and touching vulnerabilities and undergo a sort of individual alchemical transformation of their own: Miss Temple comes to terms with her own strength and repressed eroticism, Cardinal Chang sacrifices a futile love for honor and friendship, and Dr. Abelard Svenson becomes the hero he never thought he could be — but the reader can’t help but feel impatient with all the lengthy backtracking, eager for the three to get back together again for the grand finale.
However, for readers who are willing to proceed patiently, the novel offers a splendid story. Its rather Victorian writing style, verbose and overly correct, acts, like Victorian manners themselves, as a veil of civility softening the baser realities of human nature — the novel revels in cold-blooded murder and threateningly erotic temptations, thrilling rooftop sword-fights and ghastly techno-alchemical transformations. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is an alternative-history fantasy in the most subtle possible way, realistic in every detail except the particulars of place, person, and — of course — the bizarre, almost magical technology that creates the mysterious and deadly blue glass books.
Although The Grand Ellipse is a gaslamp fantasy that I feel confident will appeal to most readers who enjoyed Clockwork Heart, I have to recommend The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters with more caveats. I enjoyed and admired this novel a great deal, but it’s not a romance, and its undertones of Victorian eroticism — sometimes involving dominance/submission situations — may turn off some readers (however, I detest novels in which the female protagonist is raped, so trust that I wouldn’t recommend one to you here). On the other hand, if you’re looking for something different, something that straddles the division between gaslamp and steampunk, mystery and thriller, fantasy and science fiction, while never relinquishing a strong Victorian sensibility, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is a must-read.
The novel’s sequel, The Dark Volume, which appears to address the question of how Miss Temple’s sense of identity will cope after being immersed in so many others’ memories, comes out on March 24, and I’ll review it as soon as I’ve read it.
Read the review of this book’s sequel, The Dark Volume.
Other steampunk-friendly books: