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A mysterious alchemy yields three heroes, glazed eyes

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, By Gordon Dahlquist, Bantam, 760 pp., $26

After reading Gordon Dahlquist's debut novel, "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters ," I am almost too tired to write this review. This is not because of its length or the huge cast of characters, most of whom are involved in a sinister cabal. The most exhausting thing about Dahlquist's debut fiction is the death-defying escapes that happen on almost every page. The three heroes of the book might be the luckiest in the history of literature.

In an unnamed Victorian-era city, Celeste Temple, Dr. Abelard Svenson, and Cardinal Chang uncover a grand conspiracy involving German princes, manor lords, dukes, and all manner of government officials. The plotters seem bent on taking over the world by means of a mysterious alchemical science that can transmute memories and dreams onto glass, which then can be "read" by others, producing an erotic euphoria that either seduces or destroys. Temple, Svenson, and Chang vow to undermine the cabal, each for his or her own personal reason, even as they come to deeply care for one another.

"The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" is furiously entertaining. And here's the rub. As adventure novel, in the tradition of H. R. Haggard and even more recently Dan Brown, it utterly succeeds. But as a literary mystery, which it also seems to want to be, it misses the mark. There is a vast difference between slowly revealing the secrets of the plot and laying down clues for the reader to put together. The cabal has at its center a great and terrible secret, involving both its infernal glass technology and the people who control it. What are their motives? Who is the traitor? What, at last, drives the greater dream of power? Dahlquist takes us through the answers more like a teacher than a trickster.

Standing far and above the ultimately unsatisfying story are three sympathetic and remarkably fleshed-out characters. Miss Temple is prudish yet daring, strangely detached from her own desires yet willing to explore them. She is never a mere damsel in distress. Dahlquist writes her as a formidable fighter and strategist. The mild Dr. Svenson holds on to a heartbreaking sense of loyalty, even as those he was sworn to honor betray him at every turn. His fear of heights affects him in preposterous ways, but his response to his harrowing escapades somehow makes these outlandish scenes thrilling.

But the book belongs to the enigmatic Chang, a beautifully drawn pulp anti hero. Chang is the literate assassin, predictably in love with a prostitute. But his feelings are rendered with such care that when tragedy strikes, Chang's despair and courage are fully realized. In many ways, I wish he was the only main character, and that Dahlquist had fashioned a slighter, more intimate puzzle for him to solve alone.

The three protagonists are often lucid and insightful during the most improbable of times. Their emotional qualities become enjoyable distractions from their frenetic adventures and constant breathless deeds of derring-do.

The element of "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" that is both wonderful and frustrating is the strange science at the center of the story. Dahlquist does not seem to be drawing on any actual known pseudo-science or any real alchemical mythology. His is a purely invented fantasy. It's an original vision, filled with delicious descriptions of Victorian technology, straight out of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. But without archetypal images to draw from, his tale loses any metaphorical images of desire and power.

In the end, the three main characters drive what is most enjoyable about Dahlquist's ambitious debut. If you tire as I did, just hang on to their shirttails. They will lead you toward an infinite number of adventures, each more absorbingly outlandish than the last.