Book Review: Queen of the Dark Things, by C. Robert Cargill

I am in love with the world of these books. I really want Cargill to keep writing in this universe (so long as he can keep stories fresh and interesting) because there is so much to explore here — and he explores it so deftly. Queen of the Dark Things is the followup to his debut novel, Dreams and Shadowsthough both can be read as standalones. I do recommend reading Dreams and Shadows first, though, because events in the book are referenced in Queen of the Dark Things and you may appreciate the additional context and texture. But I’ll let you be the judge of what you want to do, because you’re a grownup and you can read what you want to.

In Dreams and Shadows, Colby was a pretty ordinary kid until he met Yashar in the woods. The djinn opened up the possibilities of a magical world Colby had never even dreamed of — and the opportunity for an escape from a life he found brutally dull and awful. When he was offered a chance at a single wish, he jumped at it, wishing to be able to see everything that remains unseen, and the two were whirled away on a journey through the world of fantasy and magic. Something Colby quickly discovered, though, is that the world he’d dreamed of was actually dark, gritty, dangerous, and distinctly unpleasant. It’s a fantastic read because it pulls together a score of rich writing traditions, bringing out legends and myths about the dark side of creatures we think of as harmless and pretty now — like angels and fairies — along with the grim and ominous works of filmmakers and writers alike who enjoy forcing us to face the harsh realities of the world.

But I’m not here to talk about Dreams and Shadows. In Queen of the Dark Things, we pick up largely where Dreams and Shadows left off, and Colby finds himself isolated, alone, and in a lot of trouble — because his past is starting to catch up with him, and his past is, to put it bluntly, pretty pissed. As he and Yashar try to figure out how to extricate themselves from a situation he built for himself a decade ago, we’re introduced to a new round of characters, and the stakes get a lot higher as he’s forced to make a deal with demons he probably would have been better off leaving alone.

What I love about this world so much is that Colby fundamentally tries to be good, and it’s at the core of his being even if he continually fucks it up. He’s like so many of us with naive good intentions, determined to do the right thing even if it’s costing us the world. Colby is also heedless to the consequences of his actions at times, so focused on helping his friends and building a better world for them that he forgets about the larger world around him, and what will happen when his carefully constructed universe falls apart. Which it does, a lot, because this is a universe where profound forces are at work, pushing and pulling the characters constantly in conflicting directions.

This is a series of stark, beautiful, cinematic imagery — which isn’t really a surprise, because Cargill is a filmmaker. That comes through loud and clear in the atmospheric aesthetics of the books. Yes, they’re dark, but don’t mistake these books for the oft-dismissed genre of ‘grimdark,’ because they’re about more than that. They explore the sullied world of magic and fantasy while also probing into the darker aspects of our own hearts, and they feature absolutely brilliant character development and stunning landscapes. When Cargill drops us into a new scene, we see it — we feel it, just as we feel the characters that inhabit it. If you’re looking for a classic and stunning example of fantasy done right, the literary levels that fantasy can take on in the hands of a good writer, Queen of the Dark Things is definitely it; toss it at the next person who sneers at fantasy and claims it’s all boring books with dragons and scantily-clad women on the covers (not that there’s anything wrong with those books in the first place).

Cities come alive in Queen of the Dark Things, and the book explores territory Western readers may not often think about, which gives me hope that future books in the series (please, future books!) will also delve into mythic and fantasy traditions from other cultures. In this case, the book departs from Western fairytales and legends of angels and demons and travels to Australia, with Aboriginal culture playing a very prominent role in the narrative (and a thoughtfully researched one, as well, which he acknowledges in the notes about the book). I’d love to see him take on West African mythologies, Chinese fantasy, and even more folklore and legends. What started out as a deceptively familiar depiction of things we all know quickly twisted away into darkness, and now we’re being taken upon an unknown path.

Which I, for one, love. Queen of the Dark Things isn’t all folklore and mythology, though. If you strip away those aspects, it’s fundamentally a story about love, betrayal, and friendship, and that’s what carries the story at the end of the day. Well-constructed fantasy falls apart if there’s no solid humanity behind it and there is here — even if some of the story is about how Colby is losing his humanity as he moves further and further from the innocence of his youth. It’s a character study in what happens to a man who feels everything slip through his fingers the moment he touches it, and how he attempts to cope.