The Dark Volume 2008. By G. W. Dahlquist. Penguin. ISBN: 978067096535
The Dark Volume is Gordon Dahlquist’s sequel to his earlier novel of Victorian science-fiction The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was a book I picked up about 5 years ago on the strength of a free sample chapter given out in book shops. When it went on sale in hardback it made a bit of a splash, at least with the people I was with at the time, because of it’s attractive cover with transparent blue dustcover, distressed with aged pages on the inside covers and it’s own, traditional single-strand cloth bookmark connected to the spine. Personally I always admire a hardback because the dust jacket always makes its own natural bookmark, but this was a classy alternative for less classy readers like myself. The second hardback, which to be fair I picked up brand new for less than a fiver when my local bookshop closed down a couple of years ago, has no such cover enhancements but I won’t say it’s a lesser read just because of it’s cover. I’ll say it’s a lesser read for other reasons which may or may not soon become apparent.
For those of you who have not read the earlier volume, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was a Victorian set tale of science-fiction/fantasy in which three heroes (or two heroes and one plucky heroine if you prefer) come together to go after a cabal of decadent hedonistic villains intent on world domination through their process of making Blue Glass books from indigo clay which have the ability to suck out the experiences of anyone who looks in them and can be used as a device for “experiencing” a persons pleasures or, in the case of this second book The Dark Volume, be used to transfer a recorded mind into another being. Or at least that’s basically it... more or less, there are twists and turns along the way but that’s the basic plot set-up.
The three heroes, Celeste Temple, Abelard Svenson and Cardinal Chang (who is an assassin but who is referred to as Cardinal because of the red coat he wears and who is nicknamed Chang because of the slit scars across the fronts of his eyes) each come from different backgrounds and the structure of the first novel is okay to begin with but it gets a little tiresome after a while. Each character is assigned a basic chapter each and about a third of the way through the book, the characters, and the heroic events they have become entangled in from different viewpoints, meet up and form an alliance to stop this sinister cabal. They then go their separate ways in separate chapters which are quite rigid in their repeat order - Temple, Chang, Svenson - and then come again at the end to destroy the base of operations of the villains and kill most of them on a crashing airship.
This second volume picks up where the first one left off and not, as I'd hoped, with the three main characters together and working together on another adventure. At the start of this one the heroes are recovering from recent events but already within the first chapter they are no longer together. Unfortunately the same individual repeat structure is reused in this second novel, which I guess serves it’s artistic continuity well but in the end I was getting a tad annoyed with this.
My other grumble was that the events of the first book seemed pretty much concluded and this second adventure seems to be no more than a padded invention for the sake of continuing this specific story. And I honestly didn’t mind it... just would have preferred a fresh start for the characters. There isn’t really anything much new on display here which we didn’t already get in the first book and the continued glimpses of tantalizing sexual aberration unfortunately remain just that... they arouse your interest without actually giving you any payoff... leaving you unfulfilled. Fair enough, you may say... this is the style of the writer who does not want his books to digress too much into the realms of sexual perversion... and you’d be right, of course. It’s a solid, stylistic choice. However, it’s a hangover from the first novel and, frankly, by the time I’d gotten halfway through this particular dark volume, I was left wondering when it was going to get in any way dark.
That being said, this all sounds like I’m venting my disapproval of this work and I’m not. I’m reliably informed that this kind of fiction hovers into the territory of a genre I’m mostly unfamiliar with called steampunk... be that as it may, as far as I’m concerned this falls very much into the realm of Victorian and post-Victorian pulp science-fiction and this is a genre of fiction with which I’m both very comfortable with and which I enjoy immensely. This stygian tome is no different and I’m glad to have read it.
A word of caution though to people wishing to partake of this novel... and here be spoliers... although two of the characters appear to have given up their last breath on this mortal coil in the final chapter of this book... you kind of assume, since both deaths are thinly described and left as a deduction of the third character rather than as a definite conclusion, that they will be back for a third outing. The novel is certainly left on something of a “soft” cliffhanger as far as I am concerned and I look forward to reading the third volume as soon as possible... and therein lies my word of warning. While checking out a few things to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on this review, I discovered that the books did not sell well and lost their publishers a great deal of money it seems. This does not bode well for a future volume and so I think there’s a good possibility that the characters may very well stay dead for the rest of their fictional lives. I’d like to think that this is not their final curtain but only Mr. Dahlquist presumably knows the answer to that question... let’s hope he writes another volume soon!