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Book Reviews and Recommendations
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.
Charles de Lint, Angel of Darkness (written as Samuel M. Key)
After a negative response to the explicit nature of his novel, Mulengro, Charles de Lint decided to create a pseudonym, Samuel M. Key, as a byline to any further books of that nature. It was to signify to his readers that beneath their covers lay something very different than what they expected from the usual de Lint fare: darker, more graphic. Angel of Darkness was the first novel to be written under the Key name, and has now been reprinted now under de Lint's own brand. It is one of the darkest novels I've read recently; and it is also one of the best.
Musician Chad Baker looks to make a "different" kind of music, so he lures locals to his home studio, tortures them, and records the sounds of their cries, moans, and screams. In doing so he unwittingly unleashes an "avenging angel" more powerful than even he could have imagined. In reward, he becomes its first victim.
Angel of Darkness's main theme is abuse; abuse of the physical and sexual type as well as the abuse of power. De Lint does not shy away from graphic descriptions, and that makes these abuses more horrific than more "fictional" horrors. His solution to these issues is mythically based, but then again this is a "dark fantasy." We don't expect our novelists to come up with truly feasible solutions to society's ills, but merely to give us an ending that makes us feel better temporarily. Near the end, I was afraid that he was edging into Rose Madder territory (Stephen King's otherwise good novel of domestic abuse that was ruined by a trite ending), but he redeems himself by not falling into that "easy escape" trap.
De Lint's skill in this genre is immediately noticeable. I was grabbed by the first page and dragged through such fast-paced, well-written atrocities that I was unable to look away, however disturbing the scene (and there are many). None of the characters is a complete person, but in this case "personalities" work better. It was immediately apparent who we were expected to root for, and I went right along with it. It's not a happy story; good people die and not many characters survive at all. This Angel of Darkness leaves a string of corpses in its wake, and I, for one, was glad to be along for the ride.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2002. Reprinted with permission.
Charles de Lint, From a Whisper to a Scream (written as Samuel M. Key; an early Newford novel)
This is the second of Charles de Lint's books written under the Samuel M. Key pseudonym. (The significance of the pseudonym is explained in the Angel of Darkness review, and more information is also available on de Lint's Web page). From a Whisper to a Scream is also noteworthy in that it was the first full-length novel de Lint set in his much beloved city of Newford, specifically that part of the city known as The Tombs.
In 1988, child murderer Teddy Bird was shot and killed by officer Thomas Morningstar, thus putting an end to a series of unsolved cases. It is now 1990 and the killings have started again. Local newspaper photographer Jim McGann has noticed graffiti with the word "Niki" scrawled near the crime scenes -- with the same woman always in the vicinity of the graffiti. Is this woman connected with the crimes in some way? Perhaps street musician Cindy Draper can help, as she knows the woman's true identity.
As the pseudonym would appear to tell us, this is a very dark novel. Not as gruesome as Angel of Darkness, perhaps, but it covers territory involving child abuse that some readers may prefer not to tread. These reprints of the Key novels underplay the fact that the books were originally pseudonymous (making mention of it only in a small line of text on the back cover); thus I feel compelled to warn de Lint's readers that its contents may not be what they would normally expect.
As a "horror novel," From a Whisper to a Scream does not succeed as grandly as Angel of Darkness (although it is perhaps unfair to compare them). The subject matter may have turned me off, but I think it was more the pacing. Whisper is simply a slower read than its predecessor, although it really picks up at the end.
But what it lacks in pacing, it more than makes up for with character. These inhabitants of Newford feel like real people, people I would like to revisit (and probably will, given that de Lint's Newford tales often interlace). His well-known ability to write believable females truly shines here as well. From a Whisper to a Scream is a typically well-written de Lint novel and will certainly be of interest to fans curious about the early days of Newford -- so long as they don't mind limiting their visit to the town's darkest alleyways.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.
Charles de Lint, Waifs and Strays
During my time working for Green Man Review (where some of the reviews on this page first appeared), one name has constantly been tossed about as the guy to read: Charles de Lint. Apparently, when it came to fantasy, this was the guy to top. I don't generally like fantasy (I don't think Terry Pratchett counts), so I avoided him, especially since I noticed his novels are generally in the 500+ page arena -- not generally the size for experimentation.
Then I saw Waifs and Strays at the library. A collection of short stories, I thought, a perfect chance to try this guy out. Plus, the title is the same as an O. Henry collection, and with that kind of pedigree, I couldn't resist.
The title comes not only from the penultimate story but also from the theme of the main characters being teens or children. My favorite is one written expressly for the collection, "Sisters," a sequel of sorts to "There's No Such Thing" (originally published in Vampires). It's about two sisters, Apples and Cassie; Apples is a vampire, and she has to decide whether or not to "turn" Cassie (i.e., to lose her, or to make her to be like herself).
On the other hand, my least favorite was the centerpiece, a Bordertown piece called "Stick" (from Borderland) about a half-elf girl and her troubles with the Bloods (pure elfs): fifty pages long and dead boring. In general, I didn't like the longer pieces but really enjoyed "Somewhere in My Mind There Is a Painting Box" (from The Green Man), the closer.
Altogether, Waifs and Strays is a solid collection spanning several years of de Lint's writing. It is also fascinating to watch his style and ability grow over the years. Fans of de Lint or other "mythic fiction," as it has come to be known, will definitely want to check it out.
Charles de Lint, The Riddle of the Wren
At this point, I was still looking for a Charles de Lint novel to really grab me (I hadn't yet read Spirits in the Wires). Like I said above, I usually avoid fantasy novels, but I'd heard so much about de Lint -- and some of his short stories (especially from Tapping the Dream Tree) had really struck a chord with me -- that I kept thinking if I just trudged on I'd find something I really liked. This wasn't it.
The Riddle of the Wren, however, was only his second book so he hadn't yet found his true voice. I really enjoyed the character of Minda in the beginning. I felt for her predicament and I rooted for her to get out of it, but about halfway through the book, when the typical "quest" began, I almost totally lost interest. High fantasy is really just not my thing. People keep saying I should try to read The Lord of the Rings -- that it will change my mind -- but they also say you have to read all three books to get the whole effect and I couldn't even get through The Hobbit, which, it seems to me, should be the easiest to finish.
But like I said, I enjoyed Minda, and her struggles with the sword were fun, especially when she kicks serious butt with it, but the rest of The Riddle of the Wren left me wanting. Oh, well, what's next, Mr. de Lint?
(Email me and let me know what you think.)