Friday, June 19, 2015

Dark urban fantasy

Dreams of Darkness

By Barry James 


Publisher: CreateSpace

Pub. Date: June 9, 2012

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars 


Urban fantasy books are still fairly popular. So popular that they tend to be a genre super prone to formula. Fortunately the genre is wide enough to avoid the most obvious formulas if the author wants to avoid them. I admit I am not always "with it" when it comes to urban fantasy. Back in the "golden age of science fiction", which A. E. Van Vogt famously quipped was "14", fantasy meant sword and sorcery. The first fantasy/horror novel I ever read that seemed to be modern and urban in style was Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife. I consider that novel to be the grandfather of urban fantasy. Decades later urban fantasy have merged into a plethora of ideas including Leiber's modern horror tale of witches but also sorcery, usually sans swords, Lovecraftian elements, urban contemporary environments, a heavy emphasis on the supernatural and psychic powers, and an obsession with anti-heroes rather than heroes.

With all this in mind, Dreams of Darkness is typical urban fantasy yet it isn't. The first thing that is obvious is that Dreams of Darkness is much darker than what usually passes for urban fantasy with the mainstream audiences. James' novel centers around 20-something Jordan Hanson. He seems a typical young man with a girl friend and everyday problems until he is shot and killed in a bank robbery. He discovers abruptly that he was born to be the "anti-Christ" for an ancient and powerful group of evil thingies called the Mondragorans. He escapes from them and find himself alive, or rather undead, still with the powers that the Mondragorans gave him to destroy the world and usher in their rule. Without knowing the full extent of his power or the consequences, he vows to fight the Mondragorans and save the world.

Which of course, ain't going to be easy. The first thing I like is that Jordan is a reluctant hero, something not that unusual in the genre. He struggles with his powers and eventually discovers using them may be more dangerous than not using them. James writes about this struggle well, making it deeper and darker than a Bruce Banner vs. Hulk dilemma. Jordan has a lot to learn and we learn it with him. A huge combination of occultist and mythological knowledge is thrown in. I do not know how much is borrowed from others and how much is of the author's creation, which is a strength of the work. Jordan makes some powerful allies and equally powerful enemies, including Lord William Ackerman, Jordan's chief boogeyman who is in cahoots with the Mondragorans. What ensued is a tense and long struggle with Ackerman and his henchmen culminating in a lengthy climatic battle in a demon infested Seattle. As if Seattle wasn't gloomy and dark enough to begin with!

When all is taken into account, Dreams of Darkness is an entertaining and welcome entry in the Urban fantasy genre. It has a likable and sufficiently brooding anti-hero paired with a love-to-hate villain. The creatures are quite imaginative and owes a bit to Lovecraftian horror. While the book is clearly labeled "Book one of the Mondragoran Chronicles" it is stand alone and doesn't end in a cliffhanger even though there is a nice hint of troubles to come on the last page. Unlike a lot of urban fantasies today, it doesn't overlap into paranormal romance, although there is an obvious candidate and a surprise for Jordan at the end of the book that makes me wonder about what is in store in book two. This is not to say it doesn't have its issues. This is a first, independently published, novel and has flaws typical of both. I know it is a bit of a cliche in this situation to say the author needs a good editor but it fits here. Many of the scenes seem drawn out and overall I felt the book was too long at close to 500 pages. While the many action scenes are excellently written they are also burdened with too much explanation and dialog in the midst of it. One of my pet peeves is folks fighting to the death with demons and trying to hold an conversation with them at the same time. It never felt like a good idea.

But overall it works quite well,. As mentioned, James' action segments are creative and fun. The characters are all interesting and involving. While the tale has more than its share of darkness, the author always manages to keep a little light seeping in so we remain hopeful for our heroes. I am not sure this will appeal to the mainstream reader that is not already seeped in the intricacies and nuances of urban fantasy but the avid reader of the genre should enjoy this.

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