With Dreams And Shadows, C Robert Cargill emerged as one of the fantasy genre’s most promising new writers. With Queen Of The Dark Things, he shows that his first novel was no fluke. This sophomore tale and direct sequel feels more confident and just as gripping.
Since he literally raised hell on the streets of Austin and saw his best friend Ewan die, things haven’t been going great for young wizard Colby Stevens. The faerie folk have been banished from the city limits, but a lot of the people who fought with him now want him dead. All he has left are his genie mentor/drinking buddy Yashar and talking dog Gossamer, and even they think he needs to get himself together. If that wasn’t enough, the deified personification of Austin introduces herself to tell him to stop interfering, but only succeeds in provoking a serious crush.
Something big is on the horizon, however, as a traumatic event in Colby’s past has come rumbling back to haunt him. The lords of Hell need Colby’s help, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they get it. Colby knows that, even as the most powerful wizard in the world, a deal with demons is the worst idea possible. However, he doesn’t really have a choice.
One of the great joys of Dreams And Shadows was the way in which Cargill unfolded his beautifully detailed supernatural world before finally pitching up in Austin. Red-caps, djinn, mermaids, changelings and more were all presented in a way that fit into a much-loved tradition (Neil Gaiman’s name was inevitably thrown around a lot) but felt fresh and original.
Queen Of The Dark Things doesn’t allow Cargill quite the same crutch. This isn’t an introduction; this is now just Colby’s story, and shows him dealing with the consequences of his actions. It’s great to see Cargill attack this book with such a great sense of confidence; it’s both a natural progression and an expansion on a beguiling and entertaining world that hits the ground running.
We also get a much better sense of who Colby Stevens is here. With so much of Dreams And Shadows acting as a kind of bestiary/guide-book, our hero occasionally took a back seat. Here, Cargill places him front and centre as he deals with responsibility, consequences and his inability to conduct a conversation with a member of the opposite sex. Like Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill and Lauren Beukes, Cargill understands the importance of giving his modern fantasy a complex but relatable anchor, and Colby’s struggles never feel as fantastical as they are.
Cargill’s obviously right at home in his home city of Austin, but he locates much of the story in the Australian outback, allowing him to incorporate Aboriginal Dreamtime into his universe. The tragic story of dreamwalker Kaycee and her alcoholic father is told with a great amount of heart, but also a willingness to put the characters through very hard times, recalling Joe Hill’s excellent NOS4R2.
As far as nitpicks go, this does suffer from some of the same structural issues as Dreams And Shadows, and a couple of sequences start to feel like treading water before the grand finale. These are minor concerns, however, and this is an excellent and hugely entertaining follow-up that delivers on its predecessor’s promise.