Ministry

‘Ministry’ is the name of the latest installment of G. W. Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. These sixty page booklets have been arriving on my desk every Monday for the last five weeks, and there are still another five to go. It’s certainly a novel delivery system.

I can’t remember exactly how I heard about ‘The Glass Books’ – either it was from a weblog or from our lead writer, Naomi Alderman – but I didn’t require much convincing to pay £25 to sign up for the weekly installments. Whether or not the story was any good seemed immaterial, I just loved the idea that a publisher was releasing a book in this way, just like the old penny dreadfuls from over a century ago.

While impatiently waiting for the first installment, which was late, I discovered something that plunged me into a deep funk about the whole thing: it emerged that the entire book was already for sale in the US (and thus also in the UK, even if only by airmail) and so the charm of reading the book and discovering the story with thousands of other readers around the world at the same time instantly evaporated. In fact, Naomi cheerfully informed me that she had all ten books sitting at home before I even had the first! Here I was, thinking that this might be the return of episodic fiction and anticipating all sorts of interesting discussions online about where the story might go next (just like certain TV shows), and it turns out it was all merely a publicity stunt.

As a result of my irritation, I let the books pile up unattended (beside multiple copies of The Economist, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Iliad and The Oxford History of the Crusades by my bed). Eventually I got a bit sick of them cluttering up the flat, and their constant arrival at my desk forced me to get around to reading the first book.

About five pages in, I was bored. The writing seemed drier than the surface of the Moon, and the plot was going nowhere. I decided that if things didn’t improve, I’d have to abandon the whole thing. Thankfully matters improved, and the book rapidly became very interesting and suspenseful. It appeared that Dahlquist had plotted things out rather cleverly, and this was confirmed when I read the second and third books. The first three books each focused on a different character learning about the same mystery, and the plots were impressively interwoven. If I wasn’t hooked, I was certainly intrigued.

What sort of book is this? It’s a Victorian-style fantasy/mystery set in a subtly different London to ours. There are assassins, courageous young girls, evil cabals, lots of sex and some really odd bits of ‘magic’.

Yes, it sounds like His Dark Materials.

No, it’s not really the same.

To be more accurate, the setting and world are similar, but the writing isn’t. Whereas Philip Pullman filled his characters and his world with a vivid soul, Dahlquist’s characters are rather more… flat. They do interesting things, and they certainly have very exciting adventures, but their character development seems forced. Plus, if you don’t like Victorian-style fantasy, stay well away – Dahlquist is committed to the style to the point of boredom. The publisher has called it ‘Philip Pullman for adults’. I would reply that Philip Pullman always was for adults, and just making the plot more complicated doesn’t make it any better.

Having made all of these criticisms, I’m happy to say that it’s still a very entertaining read, and I’m glad that I signed up for it. If you like your Victorian fantasy (and I hope a lot of you do), try and buy the book.

I really do think it was a missed opportunity that Penguin/Bantam didn’t release the book in installments on a wider scale (i.e. more than 5000 copies), and embargoed the full novel before the 10 week run was completed. They had the chance to create a real community around the story, and they botched it. I’ll admit that they put a lot of effort into their website – it has some strong ARGish elements running through it – and it even has a text adventure game that ties into the story. But it still doesn’t make up for the mistake.

The delivery of a written story episodically is not a new idea in the least, and countless stories are still serialised in magazines and newspapers today. Where The Glass Books stand out is that it is a good serialised story with serious backing. It reminds me of Daughters of Freya in a way, but where that story ran on a separate timeline for every reader, The Glass Books are delivered to everyone at the same time. A lot of people are interested in episodic delivery of games these days; we shouldn’t forget that there might be new opportunities for episodic delivery of stories in the future, especially with the internet and eBooks.

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