The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist
I found myself in Zurich recently and bookless. There being only one English-language bookstore in said city, I soon betook myself to Orell Füssli and began to ponder their (impressive) stock. For such a book-lover as me, it is actually a rare occurrence when I just let myself go into a bookstore to browse and buy whatever strikes my fancy. Because that sort of thing can get out of hand, I’m much more likely to make targeted bookstore stops, focusing specifically on the one book I need (or “need,” more accurately), getting it, and quickly leaving before twelve other shiny volumes catch my eye.
But, on this particular day, I was on holiday and determined to allow myself the pleasure of book-browsing. My choice eventually boiled down to a broader internal struggled between the reader I want to be (the one who reads Margaret Atwood and Booker Prize-winning books) and the true nature of my bookish soul (the one who reads Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne). Not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, but you will no doubt agree that it is a rare volume which combines the two. So in Orell Füssli I had a decision to make and, with a slight pain in my heart at abandoning the row of lovely Atwoods, on that particular vacation day, I let my true nature win.
Thus G.W. Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters came down off the shelf and into my arms. I knew absolutely nothing about Dahlquist or his book at the time. But some of the best reads I’ve experienced in the past came with the same total lack of information about the book, so I was more than willing to give it a go.
The result was a rather interesting mix of Jules Verne’s steampunk adventure, S. Rider Haggard’s supernatural weirdness (and adventure, bien sur), Neil Gaiman’s imagination combined with Terry Gilliam’s visual aesthetic, probably some Alan Mooreishness, and topped with a dollop of Mina Harker for good measure. Would it be too crazy to say it had everything? Well, it didn’t have Atwood, but it had at least a hint of almost everything else.
I can’t really begin to describe the plot of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Somewhere in the midst of the three narrators, innumerable plot twists and POV shifts, and multitude of villains that I only managed to get straight in the last fourth of the book, the plot becomes difficult to explain in simple terms. There’s a mystery. And it’s fantastical. And adventuresome. And almost unbelievably creative. I was terribly impressed with the tour-de-force of imagination Dahlquist brings to bear in Glass Books. For his protagonists, Dahlquist wonderfully uses three stereotypes of Victorian adventure fiction (the strong-willed lady, the military man, and the man of the streets) and imbues them with personalities at once familiar to any fan of the genre and also necessarily made new by Dahlquist’s evocatively drawn world.
And the setting of Glass Books may be where I was most impressed by the book (and by Dahlquist himself). The novel operates mainly in a fictional city that you’re constantly almost able to identify as Victorian London, but it never is. Something always steps in to make it slightly strange or unrecognizable. The mere creation of this London doppelgänger may not sound hugely creative, but the way Dahlquist evokes Victorian London in his fictional city without ever mentioning it and makes you know where you are without ever having to say so is little short of brilliant.
In fact, it reminded me of a similar trick performed by Lev Grossman in his The Magicians: Grossman borrowed liberally from another literary tradition (fantasy rather than adventure) to create his new world to similarly dazzling effect despite the same apparent lack of originality. Is it possible that being wholly unoriginal in one’s setting can actually provoke more originality than not? Dahlquist and Grossman make me think it might just be possible despite the paradox of it all.
That said, the downsides of Glass Books for me were all largely matters of format, rather than any failings of the book itself. As Dahlquist jumps between his three protagonists, alternating chapters to tell each one’s side of the story, I’ll admit I got a little confused and had to flip around occasionally to remember exactly which lurch I’d last left them in. With two break-neck intervening chapters about other people’s adventures in between leaving a character and rejoining him or her, one may presumably be forgiven for forgetting the exact details of ‘When last we left our hero…’.
On the whole, it was a dizzying read and one which I’m glad I caved to over Orell Füssli’s impressive Atwood offerings. Apparently there is a rather mediocre sequel, which I probably won’t bother with. Glass Books is perfect as a self-contained unit and to ask for more would just be unnecessary.