Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin Kiernan

When putting together my list of new authors to try at the start of the year, my friends suggested Caitlin Kiernan and the Tinfoil Dossiers (which starts with Agents of Dreamland).

When I looked Kiernan up, I found one compelling reason to put them on the list and one compelling reason to not.

The reason in favour was the people talking them up as one of the great voices in weird fiction today, and I feel like the boundary of fantasy and horror commonly dubbed as weird is calling to me recently.

The reason against is that Kiernan’s statement that they have “no real interest in plot”.

I am very much a have my cake and eat it reader, and plot is an essential ingredient in the perfect cake. To me the things that plot, or story, or however you want to call it, provide are a sense of novelty to prevent stories getting stale and a chain of events that cause scenes to get more and more power.

Still, I gave it a shot. Try everything twice and all that.

Now as I said in recent reviews, I’m a big fan of going into reviews as blind as possible. But I can state with utter confidence that knowing Kiernan wasn’t a big fan of plot and adjusting my expectations were the difference between liking this novella and not.

The set-up to Agents of Dreamland is there’s an agent of some shadowy organisation hunting down these cultists that are contaminated with something. Think The X-Files meets Cthulhu, or The Invisibles. And there is some plot advancement, but really this set-up is just a framework to go through the minds of two people on opposite sites seeing incredible, nerve-wracking things. That’s it. Psychological probing and incredible sights done rather well.

Do I need to adjust the amount of information I get before entering a book? Maybe. Maybe not. I usually find out the genre before declaring myself in and as I’m quickly realising, weird fiction as a genre tends to skew story light. It likes shorter books, as not to lose its impact, and with so many things to be done in a short amount of pages, something often gets squeezed. Story is often that thing.

But as I keep rabbiting on about, genre can be a really uninformative label. A lot of big sub-genres are really a dozen or so different things lumped together. Someone asks you for a steak, you ask what cut. Someone asks for death metal recs, you ask them whether they want that technical or brutal or melodic or proggy or blackened and so on.

In any case, I liked Agents of Dreamland because I had the right expectations. It didn’t knock my socks off because while the visions are vivid and the writing is strong, I needed more character, more coherence. And yeah, more story. Expectations only carry you so far. It wasn’t the jackpot win. But it was good, and hopefully you’ll find it good too.

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