Thursday, September 03, 2009

The latest book I've finished is Drood by Dan Simmons.

Drood fits nicely in a fairly new sub-genre, the "secret history. Pioneered by writers like Tim Powers, secret histories take actual people and actual historical events and put their own plot into the space created by odd coincidences or unexplained events. In Drood, this secret history is built around Charles Dickens and his one time protege Wilkie Collins.

It also uses another neat trick -- the unreliable narrator. The book is told in the form of a memoir written by Collins, who does not hide that he is taking huge amounts of opiates, usually in the form of laudanum, resulting in holes in his memory and the possibility of hallucinations. Even by the end of the book, it is never 100% clear what is real and what is fantasy.

While the book is well written overall, I do have a few quibbles. First, there is too much exposition. I did learn a lot that I didn't know about Dickens, Collins and the time they lived, but at times the exposition is too blatant and pulls away from the story. Second, the use of actual historical characters feels uncomfortable. In particular, the Collins character becomes less and less attractive as the story goes on. By the end of the story, he takes actions that would seem libelous if Colins was still alive. I don't know if there is any historical evidence for that kind of character assassination. This is true to some extent with all "secret history" type books, but it seems very egregious in this case.