Drood by Dan Simmons

When I was a child I used to make up completely fantastical stories and pretend they happened in history. I always longed to find a way to make it look like my fantasy could have happened. I never could make it work — mostly because I was being way too fantastical and I didn’t do enough research.

Dan Simmons has neither of these flaws. In fact he pretty much owns the historical fantasy genre — if such a thing exists.

On the 9th of June, 1865 while traveling with his mistress and her mother by rail from Paris to London, Charles Dickens was involved in a railway accident at Staplehurst. Seven rail cars tumbled form a bridge under repair, Dickens’ car, being the last, managed to cross the track safely. This event changed his life forever until, five years later, to the day, he died.

Drood is the story of those five years, as told by Dickens’ close friend and collaborator Wylkie Collins.

At the Staplehurst accident, while moving among the dead and dying Dickens happened to see a dark figure dressed in black, also moving among the victims. He introduced himself as Drood and every person he touched died immediately after. With that introduction starts a tale of Dickens’ search for this angel of death and a plot that will suck in his friends, family and all of London before it is through.

In pure Dickensian fashion the characters are larger than life and beautifully real. The narrator, Wylkie Collins, is so human and misguided and despicable it’s hard to know whether to love him or despise him.

Writing a work of fiction narrated by a classical English author about one of such staggering renown as Charles Dickens would seem pretentious in the extreme if Dan Simmons were not up to the task. However, he is up to it and maybe even more. He successfully sinks the reader into the world of the late 1860’s London so fully that I could taste the smog and feel the damp London air as I read. Having had the same experience of getting chills during the Tucson summer when reading about the ice in his recent book The Terror I find this completely incredible. After only a few short pages I felt like I was Charles Dickens’ friend and had known him my entire life.

This book contains moments of sheer terror, and moments of profound relief. It is one of the greatest explorations of the power of the English language that I’ve seen in some time.

Simmons seems to be one of those rare people who can write about anything and it will be interesting to read. His skill with words is marvelous to behold and the way they flow and twist about each other feels almost like the book is crafted from the materials of a Japanese zen garden rather than from the cruder stuff we call language. This man is a master of his art and has so completely succeeded at his historical fiction that I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. It’s bound to be fantastic.

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