Wizards of the Coast, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-7869-4317-3
Fantasy Horror, 2007 (Reissue)
Andria Cardarelle’s To Sleep with Evil was initially part of a line of novels issued as tie-in merchandises to the now-defunct role-playing game Ravenloft. The packaging of this reissue eliminates any mention of the plane of Ravenloft, which, when I think of it, doesn’t really do much for this book. In fact, I believe it’s a great disservice to this book to dissociate it from the Ravenloft line because this book has plenty of inferences and clues to what is going on that only someone familiar with Ravenloft canon will understand, much less appreciate. I suspect readers unfamiliar with Ravenloft will be wondering what is going on here. In fact, there are enough loose ends here to stump even the most devoted fan. For the purpose of this review, I’ll explain things in the most generic terms so as to not confuse anyone unfamiliar with Ravenloft.
Unlike many other books in the Ravenloft line, To Sleep with Evil is actually the most successful in creating a Gothic atmosphere. Heroine Marguerite seeks to flee her home in Darkon and the nightmares of a beau who turned out to be a shapeshifting monster. She becomes the mail-order bride of sorts to one mysterious Lord Donskoy who lives in a big scary castle complete with creepy staff and a few kind souls who have secrets that aren’t as benevolent as Marguerite would like to believe. Soon it becomes clear that Lord Donskoy only cares about getting an heir from Marguerite, but the poor dear has no idea the extent of it. She will soon become a helpless pawn in a power struggle between Lord Donskoy and his enemies.
Many things in the story are not made clear to the reader. For example, why can’t Lord Donskoy leave his land? Of course, Marguerite won’t know the reason why since many of the darker workings of the realms of Ravenloft are beyond the knowledge of its population, but there are many references in this story that allude to the fact that Lord Donskoy is the darklord of this place. In Ravenloft canon, darklords are villains who are essentially trapped in the land they rule, and therefore Lord Donskoy can control everything about his land right down to the movement of his people, but he can’t physically leave the realm. But readers who aren’t aware of this basic canon will be wondering along with Marguerite what Lord Donskoy’s big deal is.
Also left frustratingly ill-explained is what Lord Donskoy’s problem is. Again, it’s back to basic Ravenloft lore. Each darklord has a personal curse that plagues his or her existence. For example, the ruler of Marguerite’s land, King Azalin, is a powerful sorcerer who sacrificed his humanity and all who were close to him, including his son, in pursuit of power. He now rules Darkon but he can’t learn any new magic spells, much to his frustration, and when he’s being naughty, the ghost of his son (whose execution he personally ordered) shows up to nag him silly. Therefore, Lord Donskoy’s desperate desire for a son that has killed many of his ex-wives can be reasonably deduced to be tied to his personal curse. As one character tells Marguerite that Lord Donskoy is “rotting inside”, I can only imagine that he’s sterile but unable to accept that fact and blames his wife instead for his failure. I more or less make all these guesses because I know Ravenloft lore. I can only imagine what any reader who isn’t familiar with the lore will be thinking when he comes across Lord Donskoy’s ill-explained frantic need to have an heir.
Now, speaking as a reader who does know her Ravenloft 101 – or at least enough to join the dots here and there in this story – I must still say that To Sleep with Evil leaves so many things hanging to the point that I am frustrated by its complete lack of resolution. Who and what is Lord Donskoy? Only the author knows and she’s not telling. What is his problem? Again, this is a secret Ms Cardarelle seems intent on keeping to herself. What the heck is going on in that confrontation between people Marguerite believes to be her allies and Lord Donskoy? I am completely baffled by the slew of new twists and turns that bombard me during the last two or three chapters of this book. It is as if Ms Cardarelle is trying to create an entirely new canon about aberrant gypsy-like creatures or something. Naturally, the last few chapters of a story isn’t the place to do that even if that is the author’s intention. This book is a complete question mark even to someone who knows her Ravenloft canon.
Let’s not talk about Lord Donskoy who remains a question mark right to the frustrating end. Let’s talk about Marguerite. Even for a Gothic heroine, she’s completely helpless. It’s not hard to feel so sorry for her since even when she finally finds her spine and decides to make a break for freedom, the author thwarts poor Marguerite in such a humiliating manner. The poor dear doesn’t get any break from the author – she’s a victim from first page to last. After a while, I wonder whether it isn’t more merciful to just put pitiful Marguerite down or something. Marguerite is also often infuriatingly oblivious to things that should be obvious, but then again, she’s such a beaten-down and abused little puppy that I don’t think I can expect anything more from her.
The horror elements in this story, however, are very well-done. The build-up is fantastic and I can pretty much feel the chill and the suspense in the air as Marguerite discovers more and more that her new life is actually stuff that nightmares are made of. Even the most obvious examples of villainy are chilling, such as the appearance of Jacqueline Montarri, Donskoy’s mistress. Jacqueline has no head – she lost her head a long time ago and now she travels to look for her head. In the meantime, she “wears” the heads of pretty women that catch her eye. I don’t know whether to squeal in delighted terror or go, “Ugh!” when Marguerite overhears her husband and Jacqueline discussing about them shagging with Jacqueline not wearing a head.
But creepy chills can only go so far. With a story that seems to be determined to keep me deliberately in the dark, often unnecessarily to the point that I close the book wondering what the heck has just taken place in last few chapters, I have to wonder whether it’s worth the time and effort to read this book since the payoff is so little. Reading this book is like listening to a one-sided conversation where only the person doing the talking understands half of what she is telling me. To Sleep with Evil has many well-written Gothic spooky scenes, but it has so many loose-ended moments that it is better off adapted as a game module, in which the DM is free to make all kinds of interpretations of the loose ends here to fit a current campaign.