May 27, 2010 by Reader's Connection
I mentioned Charles de Lint´s novel The Mystery of Grace back in February in a post about novels involving magic. I had liked the book, but it took place somewhere in the southwestern United States, and I learned from the reviews and liner notes that a large portion of de Lint´s fiction takes place in a city called Newford, which is located “somewhere in North America.”
Visiting that town seemed like a good idea. Raven, the fellow who made the world, lives in a old house in nearby Sweetwater; and the Woodforest Plaza Mall is being used as a fairy court; and lots of area residents and passers-through are part deer or part bird or part fish. This is obviously a happening place.
Their winters seem to be a little longer than Indiana’s, so I suppose Newford is a bit north of us, but by leaving its whereabouts vague, de Lint–who lives in Canada–has allowed it to function as a gathering point for American Indian and European mythological goings-on.
He has written scads of Newford novels and stories, of which I have read only two; so I’m missing a lot of background information. But about these two I’ll say that you have to read them in order: The Onion Girl (2001) first and then Widdershins (2006).
I have a complaint and I’ll get it out of the way. The characters are too nice. Of one woman it is said: If whoever it was that started the whole dumb blonde thing had met her, they’d have picked on brunettes or redheads instead. She was pretty and smart, a published poet with a social conscience and a huge heart. Is de Lint trying to talk me into dating this woman? And one fellow says of himself, I didn’t feel the remotest connection to those early exploreers who only saw the Americas as a source for monetary gain–no more than I do now with the big companies that run roughshod over anyone and anything that gets in the way of their profits. Give him his p.c. merit badge and let’s move on.
But even if the author has pitched his books toward a like-minded audience who enjoy being patted on the back for sharing the virtues of these characters, the two books are still worth reading, because what we have here are graphic novels without the pictures–and that’s not a put-down; they’re a great deal of fun. These characters move from The-World-As-It-Is (what we’d call the real world) to the Dreamworld, or Otherworld–which is just as real as TWAII. There’s also the Between. And there’s the croí baile, your own piece of the Otherworld which you’ve unknowlingly created with your memory and imagination.
You might want to stock up on graph paper so you can keep track of which characters are keeping company with whom in which lobe of the Otherworld. That’s especially true of Widdershins. If I had to pick a couple of memorable episodes, both would be from late in Widdershins: when Jilly Coppercorn, the central character of the two novels, figures out a way of dealing with a villain in her croí baile; and then when members of the air and water clans (bird people and fish people) gather to pass judgment on one member of the water clan who has been up to no good.
New fact: when migrants from Europe took land away from the American Indians, their otherworldly following–the fairies–intruded upon the Indians’ otherworld. So there was land-theft in at least two dimensions. I hadn’t realized that, but it’s the reason why fairies hang out in shopping malls: The wilds–the forests and fields and so on–have been set aside by treaty for the “cousins” (the bird people and deer people and others who were here first) and the fairies aren’t welcome out there.
I enjoyed the books, and I seem to be in the minority with my feeling that the author tends toward sappiness. The reviews that you can open in our catalog speak highly of de Lint’s talent for characterization, and I’m including reviews of a few other Newford tales to show you what I mean.
But first: There are beings called “treekins” in Widdershins who are put together with tree limbs and twigs and leaves (and there are “techno treekins” like Edgan, who have replaced their twigs and moss and whatnot with computer parts and other gadgets, but never mind them). One human character is turned into an oversized treekin and has his limbs tragically scattered.
These leafy entities reminded me of the 1969 Kingsley Amis novel The Green Man. If you need a break from Charles de Lint’s relentlessly nice characters, you’ll enjoy Maurice Allingham, the self-centered drunk and philanderer who runs an inn called the Green Man that was built in medieval times. He comes to realize that there’s a reason for that name. The place is seriously haunted.
I did a post a few weeks back about the afterlife, and Maurice and God touch on that subject in the course of a conversation. Yes, God visits Maurice right there at the inn. How can you not want to read this thing? And being a Kingsley Amis novel, it’s funny.
Okay, now back to de Lint and Newford:
This collection of 13 stories is the fifth set in Newford, de Lint’s city of artists, musicians and magic, and the first since 2002’s Tapping the Dream Tree. Interspersing time travel (“Riding Shotgun,” “That Was Radio Clash”) and period pieces (“The Hour Before Dawn”) with tales of Native American and Celtic magic (“A Crow Girls’ Christmas,” “Da Slockit Light”), de Lint creates an entirely organic mythology that seems as real as the folklore from which it draws. From flighty yet powerful avatars to fiendish goblins, the characters are complex and clever, and even the most fantastical still has a sense of humanity. The endings often contain twists worthy of O. Henry. These clever, frightening, wise and entertaining stories are an excellent introduction to de Lint’s writing and imagination, and will also provide longtime fans a welcome return to Newford. — Publishers Weekly
De Lint returns to Newford and Jilly Coppercorn’s youth, which readers of The Onion Girl (2005) and other Jilly stories know was extremely painful. The setting here is Jilly’s early college days. She is just beginning to put her abused past behind her. One evening she runs into her only friend from her days in a juvenile institution, one of the few who know her original name. Bass-playing Donna invites Jilly to see her band. But no one has heard of the club in question. That’s not surprising in Newford, where things and people come and go, and some things exist only for those who can sense them. When Jilly goes walking with Donna after the show, she enters another town, in which she can put the past even further behind and be what she should have been without the intervening wasted years. De Lint presents Jilly’s choices, the memories impelling them, and the solution to the riddle of Donna in his characteristic powerful yet intimate style. Jilly’s reader friends, including those first meeting her, will be more than delighted. — Booklist
More urban fantasy set in and around de Lint’s all-purpose North American city, Newford . . . As usual, a variety of dysfunctional characters fumble their way to new beginnings, helped or hindered by a familiar coterie of magical beings, musicians, writers, and artists . . . Predatory werewolves and fallen angels scour the dark streets; ghosts and spirits lurk in abandoned tenements; tiny folk, once birds, yearn to regain their ancient forms; murderers get their comeuppance, though never in any expected fashion. Vicious pixies from the Internet emerge through a computer screen to wreak havoc in Holly Rue’s secondhand bookstore and annoy its unsuspected tenant, a shy but valiant hobgoblin. In the dreamworld, the witch Granny Weather, captured by malevolent bogles, summons the aid of Sophie Etoile, in whose veins runs faerie blood. Need to learn how to make your dog capable of speech? Consult TheWordwood.com, a Web site in an imaginary city in a world reached only through dreams.Newford may be an acquired taste, but if the lack of a new novel causes any disappointment, it will surely be assuaged by the quality and variety of the material here. — Kirkus Reviews