The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters begins with a proper Victorian miss receiving a note from her fiancé breaking off their engagement, and ends with dragoons falling willy-nilly from a dirigible headed to the clay mines of a remote German fiefdom. And Gordon Dahlquist, playwright and first-time novelist, stuffs more than 700 pages' worth of intrigue, alchemy, political cabals, technoreligiosity, and wildly inventive mayhem in between. It's all too much—too long, too slow, and too discontinuous. Yet the book's two central conceits are powerful enough to burn through the bloat. The conspirators' nefarious plot involves the creation of huge books of blue glass in which memories of sexual encounters and other deviant practices are captured. And the trio of unlikely adventurers allied against the books' manufacturers are more winning when working together than they are tediously one-note when working alone.
The steampunk storyline follows Celeste Temple, the jilted lover, into the heart of the decadent rituals to which her intended has become a willing supplicant. Assisting her are the personal doctor to a German prince and a dangerous killer for hire. Dahlquist drips the compelling images into the plot like Chinese water torture: the blue glass cards that cause viewers to experience all the sensations of the few seconds of life imprinted on them, the horrific operating theater in which London's masked elite applauds "the Process," the rubber hoses and masks forced over naked prostitutes immobilized on tables, the observation rooms in which the sybaritic rich lose themselves in the books' forbidden contents while being watched by sinister government ministers and petty royalty through one-way mirrors. Creative killing by means of dagger, coach wheel, revolver, cutlass, and shattered glass is juxtaposed with the provincial sensitivities of the British upper crust.
Dahlquist's magnificent folly is as infuriating as it is compelling. The final night's confrontation stretches through nearly half of the formidable page count. The three heroes aren't equally interesting, and the narrative suffers whenever Dahlquist separates them and rings the changes on their perspectives in turn. The conspirators turn out to be a veritable Babel of conflicting alliances, purposes, and methods, and slaughtering them all in turn is almost as exhausting as listening to their endless explanations. But this story is so seductively tense, and a few of the characters so vivid, that the pages turn themselves in a fevered dream of blue glass and hot, spurting blood.