Review: What Dreams Shadows Cast
Hey, how’s it going, Barbara? Sorry it’s been a while since you sent us this novel, and I’m only now getting to a response for you. Life, as they say, has a way; what with SPFBO-round-twos, vacations to Hawai’i, and other such takers of precious time. Anyhow, thought I’d drop you a line because I was really quite excited to read the next story in your Dying World series. Hope this format is okay as well. I know you might get the feeling that a few others are reading over your shoulder, and you’re totally right. They are. 🙂 But you should be used to that by now, what with having so many of your stories out in the wild. So, here you go.
First, can I say that I was both excited and nervous to see this story start with Vogg, the lizard? To me, that meant that I could expect a new perspective on the world and the team of characters based on the good characterization that you gave me last time around. But it also meant that I’d be expecting a lot of other things, like distinctive story and perspective, a separate story arc, and a reason for the new point of view.
The story started out pretty solid, catching us up to where the group of people we left at the end of BURNING. Ash the priest-investigator, Vogg the lizard-soldier, Spark the alienish-techie, and Syed the supposedly-good-intentioned shadow playing their boss. Six months gone, watching for more shadows, still looking for why the gods have abandoned the world, but now enjoying the frequently-stormy weather and relative stability of the city. I really enjoyed the mix of science and fantasy that you’ve played around with in this series. It’s not something we see very often.
During that first part of the story, I frequently found myself wanting more though: more surroundings, more history, more characterization. It took me a while to get into the story because I was busy trying to remember who all of the characters were and how they fit into the story. As I slowly became acclimated, everything started coming back, but it took longer than it could have. It’s sometimes difficult to put information that feels like rehash into a sequel, but a little bit of it sure can go a long ways sometimes. Someone I feel really does this well is Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files series. If you haven’t read that yet, you should. He does so many things so well in that series. Whenever a character comes onto the scene, we get a little recap of who they are and how they fit into the story and what interactions the main character has had with them recently, which really helps when us readers rarely get successive books closer than a year apart.
When the first plot twist came in DREAMS, I was totally waiting for it, and it was a solid one. Ash, out chasing rumors that sound like another shadow has come into the city but finding something else instead. Still, it felt like it came kind of late and I didn’t immediately know how it would impact the characters. By about the same point in BURNING, chapter-wise, I already had a lot of story complexity and solid characters, but here was only the first bit of significant variance in the plot. I was also left wondering a bit when the story seemed to take a left-hand turn and the team travels out into the desert to an archeological dig sponsored by a new Jansynian company.
Once there, it kind of felt like the pacing dropped quite a bit and the story fell into a slow, trek through the very few clues that might or might not lead them to another shadow. There was a pretty big problem throughout this whole section with character motivations. I didn’t really understand any of them. Ash wants to find a shadow, but he’s also been asked by his boss to pump one of the researchers for information about the Abandon, when the gods left, and the Jansynians want him there to work his Archival magic for them. But when he gets there, he’s left to kind of wander around the dig site, go down into the cavern where the Jansynians have found an old city, and there’s no concerted effort by the Jansynians to get either him or Spark to do anything they’ve asked of them. Vogg also seems to wander around and learn a few things, and even though we do learn a few things from him, I never really felt like his story took off or became what I was looking for in a new point-of-view character. Spark makes some progress, but again she’s mostly working on her own and with limited Jansynian interaction.
On the whole, it felt like a lot of the complexity and imagination that I loved from BURNING had been left behind, and this book focused on a very limited, single idea that really took a long time to develop to the point where it became interesting to me.
Now, don’t despair too overly much. Second books are tough to write. Really tough to write. I still enjoyed reading DREAMS a lot. At no point did I ever feel like I wanted to bail on it (which is more than I can say for a lot of the books I end up reading, even traditionally-published ones), and there are a lot of things that you really did well in this one. I still loved your characterization and the interaction between them all. You have a really good way of relaying character in a very few words, and showing connections that many authors just miss out on. I also really liked the ideas and layout of your story…once I got to the end and could see it all. That main core of story was really good, but as per my earlier comment it really could have benefitted from “more”. Pretty much the same with the magic system. The shared aspect of the magic was cool, but I wanted to see more so that I understood more. When very large things are accomplished through the use of magic, there really needs to be some solid understanding as to how things worked when it’s simple so there’s a basis to build upon. Otherwise it feels kind of weak.
DREAMS could have easily been twice as long and brilliant for the extra story contained therein. But as is, it really felt considerably smaller and more status quo when compared with other self-published works I’ve read. That being said, I’d still be very interested in reading the follow-up to this story. It feels like you’re building to a great story surrounding the Abandon of the world and the truth behind the what happened to the gods of this world. Could I simply suggest one thing as you try and write that one?
Don’t hold back. Let your imagination go wild. Put everything you have into every story, because by the time you get to write the next one, you’re going to have more to work with and thus more “everything” to put into it. You have already developed a set of skills that a lot of authors never achieve. Keep using them to write more great story. Your readers are waiting for the next best thing from you. Now, go write!
And for those of you listening in, WHAT DREAMS SHADOWS CAST is the follow-up to the novel that Barbara J. Webb submitted to the SPFBO run last year by Mark Lawrence (City of Burning Shadows) that I really enjoyed reading. She sent us a free copy of this one, and I was more than willing to pick it up and give it a read. And last, some details…
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Can get occasionally strong, but there’s not a lot
Violence: Violent at times, but not overly so. Pretty age-appropriate for my rating.
Sex: One scene that goes relationship-talky when it all happens, and a couple brief references