It is a sad truism in our genre that books by women are less likely to be reviewed, less likely to be supported by publisher and bookshop promotions, less likely to be noticed, and that, as a result, many women writers are disproportionately under-read. It is not that they are not good, it is not that they are not inventive and original and fresh, it is not even that they are not commercial: it is that the deck is stacked against them. Amanda Downum is a case in point. I am pretty sure that, if we truly had a level playing field in SFF, Downum would be a star. She is, quite simply, that good. She is a Spectrum Award nominee, and a Tiptree Award Honours List writer. Her first series, The Necromancer Chronicles, which was published at the point when Grimdark was sweeping the field, has a grittiness and stark realism that rings far more true than any amount of grime and sex and anti-heroism, and confronts the political repercussions of colonialism, absolutism, and gender-essentialism without either sentiment or apologism. The series is also entertaining, engaging, and immersive, and marks Downum as one of the true heirs of the genre-defining Fritz Leiber. (Another heir is Violette Malan, another unfairly neglected current writer.)
The Necromancer Chronicles are epic fantasy with a twist of swords and sorcery. Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is presented by its cover and marketing as urban fantasy. But the landscapes and challenges here are far from the familiar ones of wizards and vampires and fae. This is a darker world by far, a world of the Weird, closer to Clive Barker and Jonathan Carroll than Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris. In a feverish, night-bound version of Vancouver, young artist Blake has gone missing and it is up to his friend Liz Drake to find him. So far, so Tam Lin, but this is not a romance. Blake is gay, and his lover Alain died in the strange event after which Blake disappeared. Liz is asexual, tied to Blake by a love that is perhaps sisterly but which is certainly not sexual or sentimental. This book is populated by people from the margins—new artists, drug addicts, people in flight from the tragedies and mistakes of their past—and these things hamper, rather than help. This is a world with consequences for actions and those consequences have begun for the characters before the book opens. There are no easy options, and precious little trust in these pages: almost no-one, including Liz and Blake, are what they seem, and the characters are authentically, painfully flawed and fallible. For much of the book both Liz and her companion Alex are ill, lending the book a nightmarish quality that goes beyond trappings of decay and fear. No-one, including the reader, can be entirely certain what to believe, as dreams become reality, reality slides into dream and almost any action or event—a word, a party, a funeral—can tip over without warning into a terrifying fugue state. Slowly, both readers and characters become aware that Blake has fallen into the power of the “King in Yellow,” and Liz’s dreams are leading her through the streets of the legendary city of Carcosa. Events are fantastical, but Downum’s rich and acute prose lend them chilling credibility.
On her website, Downum describes herself as a “fantasy writer and purveyor of Lovecraftian romance.” There is certainly a flavour of Lovecraft to Dreams, but Downum transcends him. She is, for one thing, a far stronger writer (and a far less prejudiced and cynical one). The prose is effortless, ornate without pretension, complex, resonant. The stark notes of the bleaker end of Grimms’ Fairytales are present here, and the Adventures of Alice, and the hunt of Isis for the remains of dead Osiris, and the cruel realities of the lives of the jeunesse d’orée and the decadents. But the deepest echo, the strongest theme, derives, of course, from Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow. In oblique, powerful prose, Downum immerses both characters and readers into a surreal demi-reality of rain-drenched funerals and drug-created ghouls, of inhuman hungry courts and emissaries whose intentions and honesty can never be measured and where realities bleed into each other without warning. The characters have to work hard to survive, to find a way through, and to some extent so does the reader. Downum does not make things easy, any more than Chambers did in his original stories. There are a lot of characters, supporting and minor, and most have their own backstories and needs and dishonesties. My particular favourite is Lailah, one of a triad of Canadian-Arab women who are perhaps the only true resistance to the rising power of the King in Yellow and his envoys. But then there’s Rae, a bisexual teen addict who does not know what she wants or what to do, only that she must run and try to find a way out from the web of fear that entraps her; and Alain, who is only somewhat dead; and Antja, who may or may not have made a pact with the devil. This is a complex book, more so than the vast run of what is marketed as urban fantasy, and it is not an easy read, if only because the imagery is so unsettling. It is homage, not pastiche, and as such is heady stuff.
If I have a criticism—and it is a small one—it is that the book does not always seem to know quite how to position itself, which may be down more to marketing categories than to Downum’s writing. The characters are mostly young, teens and early twenties, and some of their concerns are those of the young (relationships and appearances and the clinging relics of school experience). The framing of the story, then, could be read as young adult and many of the themes—sexuality, friendship, creativity, drugs—are at home in that genre. Yet at the same time, the book is very adult, not least because Downum does not make things clear: there are no easy answers, no full explanations, and the ending is equivocal. We never find out exactly what happened to Alice, who haunts Liz, or why Alex ran from his former lover. We never find out precisely what bargain has been struck between Blake’s patron Rainer and the powers of Carcosa. For me, this is a strength, but it may frustrate other readers, particularly those drawn by the hints of urban fantasy or YA. It might sell better as horror or slipstream or pure fantasy.
Certainly, however, it deserves to be read, and reread—for I suspect this is a book that grows and deepens with rereading. Downum leads the reader step by slow step further and further away from a seemingly mundane, if bohemian, world of roommates and galleries, drugs and restlessness, into the streets of Carcosa and the bargains of man with demon. The familiar figures of La Vie de Bohème are present, complete with resonant touches: Alex’s asthma, Liz’s sexual ambivalence, Rainer’s Svengali-like charisma. But dream on dream, act on act, Downum draws back the curtain to hint at the chilling alien hungers and needs behind. This is weird fiction at its finest, and I commend it to you.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009—winner of the 2010 Sydney J Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honours’ List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of five books on early Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The true story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos (2005).