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Spotlight on: Spirits in the Wires by Charles de Lint

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Spirits in the Wires by Charles de Lint Charles de Lint, Spirits in the Wires (A Newford Novel)

My first introduction to Charles de Lint came in the early days of the building of this website. As I was creating the page of the Modern Library Readers' Top 100 Books, I noticed that, even though I consider myself well-read, I had never read any works by an author that appears eight times (!) on the list: Charles de Lint. On the other hand, I was suspicious that the voting process had been tampered with (as you can see on the page) as both the Board's List and the Radcliffe List appear to be pretty well diversified, with hardly an author appearing even twice. It seemed to me as if one person had compiled their favorite books and fixed the voting. And that was the last I thought of it.

Later that year, I got my current job as a reviewer at Green Man Review. Second only to Tolkien, de Lint has a huge following there. They've reviewed over thirty of his books and they fight over who gets the new ones when they arrive at the office. I don't generally read fantasy, as most of it tends to fall under the "sword and sorcery" style that does nothing for me, so I figured that I was going to remain ignorant of his work. However, as the resident horror fan, I was asked to review the three books he wrote in the early 1990s under the name Samuel M. Key being newly reprinted under the de Lint brand: Angel of Darkness, From a Whisper to a Scream, and I'll Be Watching You (re-released in March 2004), thus giving me a sort of sideways introduction to the man's writing. I really liked Angel (Whisper less so) but the writing didn't seem to be of the greatness so espoused by the Green Man staff.

So I was still curious. I picked up the more-suitable-for-experimentation short story collection Waifs and Strays at the library (my opinion of that one is at the link). It was appearing that the short story was his forte over the novel form. Then, in a competition, I won a copy of Tapping the Dream Tree -- at the time his latest collection of stories centering around the fictional city of Newford -- and this was confirmed. His work is uneven -- and I didn't particularly enjoy the longest piece, "Seven Wild Sisters" -- but two stories in particular struck a chord with me: "Pixel Pixies" and "Embracing the Mystery" both concern magic and computers. This was the kind of "urban fantasy" I was looking for. Not Emma Bull's War for the Oaks that spends half its time in fairy land, but de Lint's vision that brings the magic into the modern world, even to the internet. But as this was a recent development, his early novel The Riddle of the Wren was another disappointment.

When I could tell that de Lint's new novel Spirits in the Wires was going to build on these two stories, I got excited. Was I finally going to get to immerse myself in a fantasy world that I could enjoy? Well, read on.

Spirits in the Wires concerns a Web site called the Wordwood, which is like a search engine but you can ask it any question and it will answer you in a style familiar to you, such as a beloved family member. It also concerns two of the women in the life of writer Christy Riddell: his girlfriend Saskia Madding, who believes she was born from the Wordwood; and his "shadow self," whom he calls "Mystery" but who has given herself the name Christiana Tree (Miss Tree=Mystery). Christiana is made up of aspects of Christy that he threw off himself when he was seven years old, but she has made herself over the years into her own person.

When a man spurned by Saskia wants revenge, he has a virus sent into the Wordwood, which causes everyone logged on to the site at that moment to disappear--including Saskia, who disappears right in front of Christy, who is helpless to do anything about it. This leads to a pursuit of those disappeared, a trip into the website, and teamwork from people who variously love and hate each other.

Once I got past de Lint's strange naming convention ("Christy" for a man, "Aaran" with no "o," in addition to just an uncommon selection of names in general), I realized that this made it easier to keep characters separated, as opposed to some writers who don't take that into consideration and have characters named Fred and Frank (or Jo and Joy) in the same book. Probably the most interesting aspect of the book is that the characters carry over from other books. I met most of the people in Spirits in the Wires somewhere in Tapping the Dream Tree. So, it's like a series book where you already know the characters and can just get on with the story. But on the other hand, some of the characters I didn't know were introduced fully with the plot so I didn't feel left out. I feel sure that a newcomer could pick up Spirits in the Wires and not feel lost.

De Lint has quite a story here to tell and writes with apparent ease. He is familiar with the technology (one aspect of the book that could have been done badly) enough to give enough information to understand the plot, but not bog his audience (already tech-savvy, to judge by his vast internet following) down with unnecessary details. But the details of the land inside the Wordwood are perfection. The idea that a fantasy land could, at its core, be run by a computer program is ingenious and I was swept up in the plot and the characters' relationships with each other in spite of myself. I couldn't wait to get back to the book after having to handle my daily responsibilities.

The ending was a little talky and took a while to wrap everything up, but in general, this is a solid novel that I enjoyed a lot. Unfortunately for me, I don't believe that de Lint's other books are this geared toward me--Newford or otherwise. Hopefully, knowing the characters will carry me through any stories that aren't quite my cup of chai. Any suggestions based on what you've just read would be greatly appreciated.

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