In Dreams and Shadows, a boy and his djinn try to save a doomed child from the faerie court that stole and raised him. In doing so, they receive a lesson in the nature of the world and of the supernatural that one of them, at least, couldn’t begin to anticipate.

The debut novel of film critic and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, Dreams and Shadows is the most existential, world-weary of faerie tales. Cargill’s myth-making is unrelentingly dark in tone, more Mignola (Hellboy) than Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline, etc.). In his world, silver linings are fool’s gold, and happy endings are more the stuff of fantasy than nixies, boggarts and their kin ever could be.

This tone is established from the beginning with a prologue so dark that, by the time 8-year-old Colby Stephens extracts a wish from a stranger to “show [him] everything supernatural,” the reader knows that nothing heartwarming this way comes. As the destinies of two children—Ewan, a human child, and Knocks, the changeling who takes his place—become intertwined with that of Colby and his djinn companion, portents pile up as quickly as the supernatural cast of characters expands.

Fortunately, a dark read doesn’t mean a bad one. Cargill’s world-building is methodical and consistent. The pace is brisk, the plotting assured. Though his take on the nature of faerie is not really new or inspired, it is deliberate and codified in a way that yields a satisfyingly focused vision of a fantasy staple. Though remarkably diverse in form and comportment, the fae of Dreams and Shadows share one trait: Each is a walking (or crawling or flying or swimming) embodiment of the moral from the fable “The Frog and the Scorpion”—for good or ill, each fae behaves as its nature demands. As for the supposed mystery and inscrutability of the fae? In this world, it stems less from innate complexity than from the stubbornness of our attempts to ascribe human motivations to their behaviors. All in all, it’s a persuasive vision of what makes faerie tick that in turn provides a convincing, fascinating backdrop for Cargill’s foray into contemporary fantasy.

As a result, Dreams and Shadows is a potent introduction to a world where the wondrous is rarely wonderful, the best intentions are guaranteed to roam farthest astray, and the reader is destined to keep turning the pages until the (somewhat) bitter end.

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