Drood by Dan Simmons

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Drood by Dan Simmons

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The lives of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, when a complex and deep saga of a most unusual character interferes. Yes it's a huge and dense undertaking, but I think one that actually manages to entertain throughout.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 816 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 978-1847249326

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It's 1865, and Wilkie Collins is writing down a text so bizarre, so full of the secret, creepy, unearthly, both damned and damning, he is going to make sure it is locked away for at least a century after his death. So it's now 2009 and I'm left with the almost eight hundred page result on my lap.

Wilkie's best friend Charles Dickens is returning from France with his mistress when the train crashes horrifically off rails under repair. Scanning the wreckage the party has survived very well, Dickens finds someone else looking among the nightmarish disaster zone, someone with a greatly unusual appearance, and seemingly odd habit. Someone who says his name is Drood.

Dickens then is eager to give succour to a young man found in the wreck, and more importantly, to locate Drood – a journey that will take him and Collins into the depths of depraved, stinking, unsavoury London, result in Collins being blackmailed for information on his famous companion, and strain their relationship. And possibly, along the way, inspire – or curtail – a certain last work by Dickens.

The dense text on offer gets us right into the scene with a brilliant evocation of Victorian writing and speech styles. It never slips up with its mannered, slightly slow look – that also allows the floridly verbose characters when they arrive to stand out. Collins's narrative voice shows every tic and detail of his relationship with Dickens, from his scoffing at the Kentishman's status of best author in the world, to loathing of sharing a lengthy, stridently quick country walk with him when Collins would prefer to languor with a half-pint of laudanum at home.

It comes across as actually so pointedly detailed one might think our author is protesting too much about the veracity of the creation, especially regarding the relationship between the pair. I'll say less about the truthfulness of the scenario the writers find themselves in – entombed characters, murder, possibly corrupt policemen, drugs, mistresses, mesmerism and so much more.

Drood reads like a fantastical revisiting of Sherlock Holmes at some times – with Dickens easily seeing through people's cryptic clues, and narrator Collins hanging off his shoulder, making sure he shares the Inimitable's lamplight (and limelight), and never fancying being forced to branch off on his own. And with such a scenario as this, who can blame him?

With a horror, science fiction and sometime historical thriller output, Dan Simmons I think has found a very amenable way to put many of the tropes of his career into one book. I have not read anything of his before now, but this seems to me like a watershed – a massive book to change opinions about him, and open many eyes – even if his copious awards before now should have done. Guillermo del Toro, who provides a cover quote, is allegedly planning to film it too. And why not – it has another special effect insect for him to do.

What this book is most certainly not, is a continuation of Dickens's Edwin Drood, the half-finished book his death resulted in. It is certainly an unusual text to be inspired by the whole thing, and will split many Dickens fans with its unusual elements. At the same time it does fit in to a small subgenre of books that aim to go behind the more macabre classics, and claim a fictional real-life influence for the women in the attic and so on.

That's about the only way I can put the word small into context with this book. There is a lot in it. One early chapter ends with the pair about to go underground, and a full chapter later the cliff-hanger ending is practically of the same flavour. Still, for one huge chunk of writing it works very well, and comes across as surprisingly well sustained, and more than enjoyable.

Other people have suggested the penmanship is too modern to convince as Collins. Arch musings about his future reader's circumstances (and loose comments ahead of their time regarding serial murderers) conceded, basic research shows he is openly revealing to us in his secret document affairs that we in the 21st century still think started years after this book's setting. This is the author of The Woman in White et al falling into a more modern, direct and honest place, and I think the sense of the veracity on offer in this book is formidable. At the same time, he is not a hundred per cent reliable as a narrator, nor a hundred per cent serious.

Speaking of Collins, this contains huge spoilers regarding The Moonstone, if not Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood as well. And, oddly, no mention I noticed of The Signal-Man.

There are several things about the book that will divide the readership – the cosy Dickens fan abhorring the overtly supernatural and blunter sections of this – but remarkably, the length of the book should not be one. Yes I would have preferred it to be a lot shorter, but I have tastes that tend towards the briefer book. I'm actually glad the book reviewing gods made me give this a second look (and third, fourth, eighth…). Were one in the mood for a long, chilling wallow in gothic Victoriana (a real sensation novel as Collins was deemed to write) this would be just the ticket.

We at the Bookbag must thank Quercus for our review copy. Wer also have a review of Simmons' The Fifth Heart.

There are more real-life people and famous criminals to be found in Murder in Paradise by Alanna Knight, likewise set in the 1860s, while further subterranean, gothic Dickensian thrills are to also be had in Joe Rat by Mark Barratt, which is far too much fun to be left to the teenage audience.

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Buy Drood by Dan Simmons at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Drood by Dan Simmons at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Drood by Dan Simmons at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Drood by Dan Simmons at Amazon.com.


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