Amanda Downum’s Dreams of Shards and Tatters is an aptly-titled book; it’s a labyrinth of impressions, visions, and unstable moments. It is a novel the blends Lovecraftian and urban fantasy elements to create sensations and metaphors that render visceral the costs of desire and responsibility. The story is uncomplicated; it follows the efforts of Liz Drake to rescue her friend Blake Enderly from a cruel fate. Liz is a dreamer, who can see portents and other worlds in her dreams, and can even enter the Dreamlands. Blake is an artist who ends up in a coma after his patron Rainer pulls him into the realm of magic. Liz and her boyfriend Alex must put together the strange clues that will lead them to a way to rescue Blake from his fate in Carcosa, the city of the Yellow King.
While the story is straightforward, Downum embellishes it with copious dream-episodes and monster attacks on our protagonists. Mysterious strangers abound, as do narrow escapes. A good portion of the novel is focused on Liz’s multiple trips to the Dreamlands, where voices warn her that she is not ready to save her friend. Unnatural darkness is all around and a drug called mania fills people with magic, sometimes with terrible consequences. Magic and dreaming are rarely good or helpful in this world.
Within these elements there are moments of fabulous description; Downum is great at conjuring images that are pithy and evocative. There are grotesque, lovely passages about Carcosa and the ways that she describes magic make it feel integrated and organic. She creates strong visuals and draws her characters quickly and in motion. The novel starts with no preamble and ends without excessive wrapping-up. Downum is a very good writer with a clear story to tell.
At the same time, there were scenes and interactions that felt under-developed and characters who were stilted even in the clarity of their creation. There were character moments that felt too told to the reader, rather than shown to them. A few characters felt like they were added just to provide timely rescue and support for the protagonists. And the straightforward story felt increasingly predictable. After finishing it I wished that it had been a little longer, that there had been time for more revelations and elaboration. Liz and Antja, the best characters in the story, needed more room to breathe and develop.
I felt this keenly at the end because this was, to me, a story about connection, about responsibility, and about desire. The relationships of the two main couples are intriguing, and I wanted to know more about them, especially as the danger grows for both. Liz’s character is revealed well in the story, while the others are harder to parse. Part of that is not having enough context for the characters; their motivations, their pasts, and even their hopes are barely touched on as the novel progresses. There are elements here that could function wonderfully to delve more deeply into the characters that felt shunted aside for forward motion. That motion was not as fascinating to me at the manner in which Downum links magic and emotion and dreams.
I liked Dreams of Shards and Tatters, and I’ll certainly pick up Downum’s next book. But there was a lot more hinted at than ended up on the page, and I felt that lack as I read. It took some of the fun and much of the gravity out of the story. Excitement and tension both were washed-out by this feeling. While there was some enjoyment here, there was also the sense of a lost opportunity.
John E. O. Stevens is a writer, bookseller, and bibliophile snuggled in his hermitage in Upstate New York. He has been published in Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Le Zaporogue, and frequently contributes to SF Signal. He is also one-third of the monthly The Three Hoarsemen podcast. He can usually be found quoting poetry and expressing incredulity at the vicissitudes of life on Twitter as @eruditeogre.