Book Review 2009 #14: Drood

Disclaimer: I received this copy of Drood for reading and reviewing thanks to the good graces of the Hachette Book Group.


Drood is the latest novel by Hugo Award winning author Dan Simmons.
Simmons is an extremely literate author whose literacy has influenced more than a few of his works. The Hyperion novels owe a lot to the Romantic Poets of the 19th century. His novella Muse of Fire puts a bright light on the best of what makes Shakespeare unforgetting. Ilium and Olympos take their inspiration from Homer. The Crook Factory takes on Hemingway.
And now with Drood, Simmons delves into Dickens.
A word of disclaimer here. As it so happens, a fact that I don’t bandy about too much these days, I am related (although not a direct descendant) of Charles Dickens. I wouldn’t say that I am obsessed with his work, but I made it my duty, as a relative, to read a good chunk of his oeuvre.
So, a novel about the last years of the life of Charles Dickens and how his uncompleted mystery novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood came to be was a natural for me to want to read.
The novel is narrated and entirely from the viewpoint of Wilkie Collins, a minor Victorian novelist who was a sometime collaborator, friend, and rival to Charles Dickens. At the time, he might have been a medium light, he is not well remembered today except by scholars. (His novel The Moonstone is actually probably one of the first detective novels, and is a clear inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s work).
Drood starts with Dickens relating to Collins the details of a horrible train accident, and an encounter with a mysterious, mystical figure called Drood. Collins interest in Drood, and his interest in Dickens’ own interest in Drood forms the backbone of the novel. Interest turns to obsession, and finally to horror and madness.
Its a big work, nearly 800 pages, and Dickens’ conceit in having Collins tell us the story leads to a number of effects. First of all, the novel reads like sprawling and turgid Victorian fiction. This book probably could have been half its size–but it would have been a very different book. Sprawling as it is, the book is not slow. We get a deep and abiding look into Collins mind and his world and tangled relationship with Dickens. Aside from the opening event, the novel does take its time in getting to the real meat of the Matter. An impatient reader might decide to give up before that happens.
Another thing to consider as a result of its size is that the novel impinges on the senses. Simmons does best and handles the passages when Collins descends into Undertown, or the opening set-piece of the train disaster, or any of the other ones when Simmons’ ability to write horror and madness are in full effect. When Simmons deals with the more mundane aspects of Collins life, his effectiveness is knocked down just a tad.
Another thing to consider is that Collins is an extremely unreliable narrator. Given to opium addiction, and the aspects of mesmerism present in the book, the novel acts a bit like a puzzle in the same way that Gene Wolfe’s novels often do. It is left to the reader to make judgments and decipher if what Collins is thinking, relating and observing are truly accurate. Simmons seems to give a definitive answer late in the novel–but its possible that revelation is, in itself, a ruse.
I have heard that Guillermo Del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth) is very interested in filming this novel. Given its garish and striking visuals, and set pieces that cry out for a director of Del Toro’s abilities, I can see why the novel appeals to him.
As for me, in the end, I think the novel was a bit *too* turgid, but it certainly and admirably entertained this relation of Charles Dickens. If you are a fan of victorian fiction, or a fan of the darker novels of Dan Simmons, then Drood is definitely worth your time. This novel may not appeal if you only like Simmons’ SF novels, or if the purple prose, pacing and stylistic conventions of Victorian novels are not to your liking.

2 thoughts on “Book Review 2009 #14: Drood”

  1. I agree with your comments. It’s the first of DS books I’ve read but he seems to handle the background well.
    And when I had a look at his sources some of it at least does check out. So it’s not total fantasy. And Collins books might be worth a look. Ive only read Armadale, Woman in White & the Moonstone (several times)
    I will look out for other works by him. he seems to have written a lot of books for someone who is just 60.

  2. I agree with your comments. It’s the first of DS books I’ve read but he seems to handle the background well.
    And when I had a look at his sources some of it at least does check out. So it’s not total fantasy. And Collins books might be worth a look. Ive only read Armadale, Woman in White & the Moonstone (several times)
    I will look out for other works by him. he seems to have written a lot of books for someone who is just 60.

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