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Charles (Henri Diederick Höefsmit) de Lint (1951-) - Sidelights

review fantasy world fiction

Canadian author Charles de Lint is a pioneer of modern fantasy, melding the world of faerie with the modern inner city. No fey, upland greenery for him; no cavorting elves or fire-breathing dragons. Instead, de Lint blends a potent brew of contemporary realism, characters that live and breathe right off the page, fast-paced plotting, and thought-provoking messages that has captured a wide and loyal readership as well as critical raves. Gary Westfahl, in a Los Angeles Times Book Review piece on de Lint's The Little Country, warned the reader off easy assumptions vis-a-vis fantasy: "In a genre choking to death on regurgitated [J. R. R.] Tolkien, de Lint does research and imbues his story with an unusual, authentic atmosphere." Westfahl continued, "In a genre of elaborately mapped Neverlands," de Lint's tales take place in a "contemporary world" that is "no less magical." De Lint has created an intricately mapped region of his own, described in the "Newford" books; not dew-filled nature, but an urban environment peopled by folks like us, and others not quite like us—crow people, shape-changers, tricksters, and grifters gussied up in fantastical finery.

"If . . . de Lint didn't create the contemporary fantasy," announced Tanya Huff in Quill and Quire, "he certainly defined it. . . . Unlike most fantasy writers who deal with battles between ultimate good and evil, de Lint concentrates on smaller, very personal conflicts." This may be the reason he appeals to all types of readers, both devoted fans and other audiences. Descriptives like "master of the genre" and "gifted storyteller" pepper reviews of de Lint's work, but de Lint himself is low-key about his achievements; he describes himself simply as a writer of mythic fiction. As he told Locus interviewer Richard B. Brignall, "'Mythic fiction' works because it has broader resonances and alludes to the heart of this fiction, which is, of course, myth. It has the right tonality because these are stories that have modern sensibilities, dealing with contemporary people and issues, but they utilize the material of folklore, fairy tale, and myth to help illuminate that."

Beginning with his 1979 debut, the novelette "The Fane of the Grey Rose," de Lint has proven himself to be a versatile and prolific author, with dozens of books and an arm's-length list of awards and honors to his credit, including a Canadian SF/Fantasy award and the Prix Ozone from France. Apart from a few early books in the standard high-fantasy format, de Lint's output has been mainly in urban fantasy or mythic fiction, bringing magic to the streets of contemporary North America. Folk tales and myths inform his novels and short stories, which often include themes of music—de Lint himself is a musician—and artists and other creative people as bridges to a deeper insight into the world.


Many of de Lint's tales are set in the fictional city of Newford: novels such as Someplace to Be Flying, Trader, and The Onion Girl, and the inter-connected short-story collections Dreams Underfoot, Moonlight and Vines, and Tapping the Dream Tree. De Lint is also known for the cult classic Moonheart, as well as for Yarrow and The Little Country, books that, as he stated on his Web site, convey "an everyday sort of magic—the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we're alone. These are magics that many of us experience, parts of a Mystery that can't—and perhaps shouldn't—be explained."


Born in Bussum, Netherlands, on December 22, 1951, de Lint immigrated with his family to Canada when he was four months old. His father worked with a surveying company, a job that took the family from Ontario to Western Canada to Quebec and on to Turkey and Lebanon until they finally settled near Ottawa. During these years of uprootedness, de Lint found stability in books, reading widely in myth and folklore. He lists E. B. White, Tolkien, H. P. Lovecraft, William Morris, and Mervyn Peake among the authors whose works he delighted in reading. But though he loved books, he never thought of becoming a writer. For the young de Lint, it was music that beckoned, and growing up he formed a love for Celtic music long before it became a fashionable address on the world-beat map. Leaving high school two credits short of graduation, de Lint took a variety of jobs to support his music, primary among them working as a clerk at a record store.

Increasingly, de Lint began concentrating on fiction, writing fantasy short stories that a friend illustrated. Initially this was a pastime; but when a writer saw the stories and recommended submission, avocation quickly turned to vocation. "I sold these first stories for the princely sum of $10.00 each and the proverbial light went on in my head," de Lint wrote on his Web site. "Here was something that I loved to do and people would actually pay me to do it." Over the next six or seven years de Lint continued to play gigs on the weekend and write stories that he submitted to small magazines. His first success with a larger market came with publication of "The Fane of the Grey Rose" in a Zebra collection, and de Lint later expanded this short story into the novel The Harp of the Grey Rose.

Married in 1980 to MaryAnn Harris, de Lint continued clerking, playing music—now often with his wife—and writing. When he lost his job at the record shop in 1983, his wife encouraged him to write full time. It was wise advice: de Lint sold three manuscripts that first year of full-time writing. One of these early books, Riddle of the Wren, won the author critical attention despite the fact that it plows the Tolkien furrow, as did his re-worked short story The Harp of the Grey Rose. Writing in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, Maureen Speller commented that in these derivative novels "de Lint's fascination for the humbler creatures of folktale and legend, and for the darker side of magic, is also evident, and this mitigates against the more sentimental aspects."

With publication of Moonheart, de Lint was already moving away from the typical imaginary landscape of fantasy to an urban environment. Working on further advice from his wife, he decided to set his fantasy fiction in a realistic environment, opting for modern Ottawa, as it was the locale he knew best. With this novel de Lint began also his peculiar blending of Canadian mythologies, using traditions found in Native Indian shamanism and in Welsh Druidism. Called "a milestone of modern fantasy writing" by Speller, Moonheart also blends suspense, horror, and romance in the tale of an Ottawa mansion that proves to be linked to an old battle between good and evil. Tamson House is actually a gate between our world and a magical realm. De Lint's cast of characters ranges from a mage's apprentice, a reformed biker, and an inspector for the Canadian Mounted Police to the magical little people called manitous and legendary figures out of Welsh and Celtic myth.

Writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, David Snider called Moonheart "a fascinating and enthralling work that should be in every YA collection," while Booklist's Roland Green dubbed the book "very good and distinctly unconventional." De Lint had found his territory and his voice. Over the next several years he wrote several more loosely linked novels and stories in the "Moonheart" series: Ascian in Rose, Westlin Wind, and Ghostwood, later collected in Spiritwalk. Reviewing that collection in Quill and Quire, Michelle Sagara noted that de Lint explores not only the "brightness of magic," but also "its shadow," and that with his multilayered characters thrown into the mix, "magic becomes choice and consequence, an echo of reality, not an escape from it." Sagara concluded that "there are very few fantasists today who write with such poetic simplicity and skill."

De Lint turned his fictional eye to Romany culture for Mulengro, a hybrid of the horror and fantasy genres. Set among Canada's modern-day gypsy communities, the novel tells the story of a series of bizarre murders that have police baffled. The gypsies, however, know they are dealing with the mythic Mulengro, "He Who Walks with Ghosts." It is up to a reclusive gypsy man and a young woman to get to the heart of this mythic threat and eliminate it. Gary Farber commented in S.F. Chronicle that Mulengro is "suspenseful, original, and extremely well written." While some other critics did not find the novel to be as successful in blending magic with urban reality as was Moonheart, Booklist reviewer Green noted that de Lint "deserves high marks for his research, storytelling," and for his character descriptions.

Other early books considered notable in the development of de Lint's mythic fiction include Yarrow and Jack the Giant-Killer. The former deals with a young fantasy writer whose work comes from her nightly dreamscape; when her dreams are increasingly being stolen by a telepathic vampire-type creature, she loses the ability to create. Nancy Choice noted in Voice of Youth Advocates that Yarrow "is filled with suspense and tension from beginning to end." The protagonist of the novel, Cat, is one of a long line of appealing female characters de Lint has created, a "just plain nice person you would like to have living next door," according to Choice. Jack the Giant-Killer continues the two-fold trend of strong female characters and a blend of urban setting with faerie legend. Part of a series of modern retellings of fairy tales, the novel centers on Jacky Rowan, who develops magical powers through the use of a red cap with which are revealed the giant in the city park and the elves in the oaks. Jacky learns that the good elves are dwindling in number, the bad ones prospering. The only way to stop this process is to set the princess free and recapture the Horn for the forces of good. Identifying with the elves as part of the Kinrowan clan, Jacky takes on the task with a little help from her friends, in a "very satisfying" tale, according to Tom Easton of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, who also dubbed de Lint "one of Canada's modern masters of fantasy." De Lint reprises the character Jacky in Drink down the Moon, another blend of fairy-tale motifs and modern settings; both books have also been published in the omnibus Jack of Kinrowan.

De Lint once again combines Native American mythology with Celtic story in his 1990 novel The Dreaming Place, with illustrations by Brian Froud. Featuring teenage cousins, Nina and Ashley, and emphasizing realism, this book "might . . . encourage some realistic fiction fans to give . . . fantasy a try," according to Kathryn Pierson in a review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.


De Lint's novel The Little Country is one of his most complex. It is also one of his favorites, a story within a story and a loving exposition of de Lint's own affection for folk music. Set in modern Cornwall, the novel tells the story of Janey Little, a successful musician who comes back to the village of Mousehole in England. Apart from her music, a major influence on her life is the writings of Billy Dunthorn, and she soon discovers an unpublished manuscript of Dunthorn's in the family attic. This manuscript tells the story of Jodi and her friend Denzil, who lives in the fictional village of Bodbury. As Janey gets further into the book, parallels develop between real life and that of the story in the found manuscript. Outside forces conspire in the form of John Madden of the Order of the Grey Dove, a man who desires the magical Dunthorn manuscript because it can provide the possessor with ultimate power. As Peter Crowther noted in the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, the book is filled with "charm, excitement, and above all, complete believability." According to Crowther, "it is [de Lint's] unerring knack of concentrating on his characters and filling them out, making them so real, that places his work at the forefront of the field." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that de Lint's "rendering of the small Cornish town of Mousehole and the life of a folk musician rings true."

One of de Lint's most popular fictional conceits has been his creation of a fantasy world for an ensemble cast of characters. True to de Lint form, this imaginary world is a compilation of urban settings, from London to Los Angeles. "Much of what I write about requires a root in the real world," the author noted in an interview with Lawrence Schimel for Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. When he was asked to contribute a story to a fantasy anthology, the author "decided to set it in an unnamed big city. This way, while I could get the 'feel' of the place from having visited many such cities over the years, I wouldn't be tied down to figuring out the details of which way a street went, what store was on what corner, that sort of thing." After writing several other tales, de Lint stated, "I realized that I'd been setting all these stories in the same unnamed city, using a repertory company of characters that I knew I would continue to visit in the future, so I gave the place a name, started a map to keep locations straight, started a concordance to keep track of things . . . and never quite kept up with any of it." The city of Newford has since become the locale for more than a dozen of de Lint's books.

The first collection of "Newford" tales, Dreams Underfoot, gathers stories published in magazines over several years, and introduces the ensemble cast of characters that flow in and out of all the "Newford" stories. There is Jilly, the artist; Lorio, part gypsy and part punk; Lesli, who sets free the faerie with her music; and a rich assortment of other urban types. One of the outstanding stories in Dreams Underfoot, "Timeskip," won France's Prix Ozone. Elizabeth Hand, writing in the Washington Post Book World, called this work "a genuinely chilling ghost story as poignant as it is creepy." Further additions to the "Newford" saga include The Ivory and the Horn, a "fanciful and moving collection," according to a Publishers Weekly critic, and Moonlight and Vines, a collection of stories that demonstrates de Lint to be, according to Booklist's Green, "the most literate and ingenious purveyor of urban fantasy." In 2000, de Lint received the World Fantasy Award for Moonlight and Vines.

De Lint has also used his fictional town of Newford as the setting for several novels, among them Memory and Dream, Trader, Someplace to Be Flying, and Forests of the Heart. In the first of these, artist Isabelle learns to paint amazing creatures that unleash ancient spirits into the modern world. "It is hard to imagine urban fantasy done better than it is by de Lint at his best," remarked Booklist's Green. Jodi L. Israel, writing in Kliatt, commented that "de Lint is a master of contemporary fantasy," and that the author's "literate and flowing style makes his words a pleasure to read."


Trading places is at the heart of de Lint's 1997 Trader, in which a man named Trader awakes to discover he has traded bodies with a reprobate named Johnny Devlin. Trying to reclaim his own life, Trader becomes involved in the lives of all those whom Devlin has injured. Along the way, readers are re-introduced to stock characters out of Newford, including Jilly Coppercorn and street musician Geordie Riddell, as well as the shaman, Bones. "Readers familiar with de Lint's work know that he is a master of imagery and trenchant detail," wrote Donna Scanlon in a Voice of Youth Advocates review of Trader. "He continues to demonstrate his remarkable ability here," Scanlon concluded, "never los[ing] control of his myriad plot threads or deftly drawn characters."


One of the most popular "Newford" novels, and one of de Lint's personal favorites, is Someplace to Be Flying, featuring freelance photographer Lily Carson and a gypsy cab driver, Hank Walker. Once again, de Lint draws the reader into a parallel otherworld, a city beneath the city in the Tombs, and into the realm of the shape-shifting animal people who were the original inhabitants of the earth. The original animal people, as de Lint has it, ultimately turned into the separate animals and people we know today, and in his book, the author focuses specifically on corvids: crows and ravens. Library Journal contributor Jackie Cassada praised de Lint's "elegant prose and effective storytelling" and his "unique" blend of "magical realism" and "multicultural myths." Brian Jacomb concluded a laudatory Washington Post Book World review by noting that "Someplace to Be Flying is . . . a solid thriller, full of suspense and peppered with villains of various talents and their adversaries, the decent folk who constantly try to thwart their evil intentions."

De Lint's novel Forests of the Heart "weaves a complex story of intrigue and suspense while exploring the power of spirituality and friendship," observed a contributor in Resource Links. Set in and around Newford, the work concerns four individuals—a sculptor with psychic powers, a music-store owner, a New Mexican healer, and a musician—who join together to combat the Gentry, a force of ancient, amoral spirits who traveled to the New World with early Irish immigrants and who seek to displace the native spirits, the manitou. According to Library Journal critic Jackie Cassada, de Lint convincingly portrays "the relationship between artistic creation and the magical energies that permeate the world these characters inhabit," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer called Forests of the Heart "a leisurely, intriguing expedition into the spirit world, studded with Spanish and Gaelic words and an impressive depth of imagination."

Artist Jilly Coppercorn, a recurring character in de Lint's "Newford" tales, is the protagonist of the 2001 novel The Onion Girl. Hospitalized after a devastating hit-and-run accident, Jilly visits manido-aki, a spirit world she enters through her dreams and in which she must face her personal demons in order to heal her physical self. Jilly's recovery is complicated by the sudden appearance of a troubled figure from her past, her sister Raylene. "De Lint's novels are driven not so much by destinations as by journeys, and The Onion Girl is no exception," observed Booklist contributor Regina Schroeder. A critic in Kirkus Reviews called the work an "absorbing tale, as believable and insightful as they come," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer stated, "This crazy-quilt fantasy moves from the outer to the inner world with amazing ease." In Spirits in the Wires de Lint creates "a magical otherworld, where spirits of faerie and folklore occupy modern technology and cyberspace is a fantasy realm in which imagination fuels artificial intelligence," wrote a critic in Publishers Weekly. In the work, a popular research Web site known as Wordwood is disrupted by a virus, causing everyone visiting the site to disappear and prompting a group of Newford residents to journey to the technological other-world, hoping to rescue their missing friends. According to Jackie Cassada, writing in Library Journal, Spirits in the Wires "combines world mythologies with cyber-culture to produce a new vision of interwoven realities.

De Lint has also collaborated with award-winning illustrator Charles Vess on a number of fantasy works, including Seven Wild Sisters, Medicine Road, and A Circle of Cats. The rambunctious, red-haired Dillard sisters are introduced in Seven Wild Sisters, "a gentle and at times humorous enchantment," in the words of a Publishers Weekly reviewer. In Medicine Road, twins Laurel and Bess Dillard encounter a pair of restless spirits who This 2003 novel transports readers to de Lint's fictional town of Newford, where the lines between reality and illusion become blurred after a computer virus brings the humanity of many town residents into question. (Cover illustration by John Jude Palencar.) seek human soul mates. Medicine Road is "well-laced with humor, romance, and Native American mythology," observed Sally Estes in Booklist. The children's book A Circle of Cats concerns a young girl's transformation from a human into a kitten. "De Lint's sonorous, ingenuous language is complemented beautifully by Vess's full-color line-and-watercolor illustrations," noted a contributor in Kirkus Reviews.

De Lint has described his writing style as "organic." In an interview with Mike Timonin for Wordsworth, the author stated, "I write a lot of material to get the character's voice right, sometimes hundreds of pages, but not all of that goes into the novel." He added, "I guess I lose a lot of time that way, unlike someone who uses an outline, but it's what works for me." De Lint concluded, "It's strange, when I started writing, I thought it would get easier as I went on, but it doesn't. It actually gets harder, each novel I write. I have to find something new to say, and because I don't want to repeat what I've said before, I have to go deeper, further."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 33, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, editors, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.

St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, 1975-1991, Gale, (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 196-198.


PERIODICALS

Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, September, 1987, pp. 159-162; August, 1988, pp. 137-138; November, 1993, pp. 162-169.

Booklist, December 15, 1984, Roland Green, review of Moonheart, p. 558; November 15, 1985, Roland Green, review of Mulengro, p. 468; May 15, 1992, p. 1666; October 1, 1994, Roland Green, review of Memory and Dreams, p. 246; February 1, 1995, p. 993; January 1, 1997, p. 826; December 1, 1998, Roland Green, review of Moonlight and Vines, p. 655; May 1, 2000, Patricia Monaghan, review of Forests of the Heart, p. 1655; November 15, 2000, Roland Green review of Triskell Tales: Twenty-two Years of Chapbooks, p. 625; October 1, 2001, Regina Schroeder, review of The Onion Girl, p. 304; October 1, 2002, Sally Estes, review of Waifs and Strays, p. 312; November 15, 2002, Roland Green, review of Tapping the Dream Tree, p. 584; February 1, 2003, review of A Handful of Coppers; Collected Early Stories, pp. 978-979; August, 2003, Frieda Murray, review of Spirits in the Wires, p. 1967; April 15, 2004, Sally Estes, review of Medicine Road, p. 1431.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1991, Kathryn Pierson, review of The Dreaming Place, p. 114.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2001, review of The Onion Girl, p. 1252; August 15, 2002, review of Waifs and Strays, p. 1221; September 15, 2002, review of Tapping the Dream Tree, pp. 1357-1358; June 1, 2003, review of A Circle of Cats, p. 802; October 1, 2004, review of The Blue Girl, p. 959.

Kliatt, January, 1996, Jodi L. Israel, review of Memory and Dreams, p. 14; November, 2002, Deirdre B. Root, review of The Onion Girl, p. 24; January, 2004, review of Tapping the Dream Tree, p. 22.

Library Journal, May 15, 1992, p. 123; January, 1998, Jackie Cassada, review of Someplace to Be Flying, p. 148; February 15, 1999, Jackie Cassada, review of Moonlight and Vines, p. 188; May 15, 2000, Jackie Cassada, review of Forests of the Heart, p. 128; November 15, 2002, Jackie Cassada, review of Tapping the Dream Tree, p. 106; August, 2003, Jackie Cassada, review of Spirits in the Wires, p. 140.

Locus, October, 1993, p. 33; November, 1994, pp. 52, 68; June, 2003, Richard B. Brignall, "Charles de Lint: Mythic Fiction," p. 6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 3, 1991, Gary Westfahl, "Orange County Apple and Other Aberrations," p. 11.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, summer, 1996, Lawrence Schimel, interview with de Lint.

Publishers Weekly, December 7, 1990, review of The Little Country, p. 74; October 3, 1994, p. 54; March 27, 1995, review of The Ivory and Horn, p. 77; January 26, 1998, p. 74; December 21, 1998, review of Moonlight and Vines, p. 60; May 1, 2000, review of Forests of the Heart, p. 54; April 30, 2001, review of The Road to Lisdoonvarna, p. 59; October 22, 2001, M. M. Hall, interview with de Lint, and review of The Onion Girl, p. 53; February 18, 2002, review of Seven Wild Sisters, p. 81; October, 28, 2002, review of Tapping the Dream Tree, p. 56; January 27, 2003, review of A Handful of Coppers, p. 241; July 7, 2003, review of Spirits in the Wires, p. 57; March 29, 2004, review of Medicine Road, p. 43.

Quill and Quire, July, 1992, Michelle Sagara, review of Spiritwalk, pp. 37-38; May, 1993, Tanya Huff, "Rising Stars in Fantasy Worlds," p. 26; January, 1995, p. 35; January, 1997, p. 18; February, 1997, p. 49; February, 1998, p. 35.

Resource Links, October, 2000, review of Forests of the Heart, pp. 48-49; October, 2002, Gail de Vos, review of Seven Wild Sisters and The Onion Girl, pp. 55-56; October, 2003, p. 62.

School Library Journal, February, 1991, p. 93; December, 1993, p. 29; November, 2002, Vicki Reutter, review of Waifs and Strays, pp. 160-161; October, 2003, Teri Markson and Stephen S. Wise, review of A Circle of Cats, p. 116.

Science Fiction Chronicle, July, 1986, Gary Farber, review of Mulengro, p. 41.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1985, David Snider, review of Moonheart, pp. 335-336; February, 1987, Nancy Choice, review of Yarrow, p. 291; April, 1994, p. 36; August, 1997, Donna Scanlon, review of Trader, p. 192; April, 1998, pp. 12, 36.

Washington Post Book World, May 30, 1993, Elizabeth Hand, review of Dreams Underfoot, p. 9; March 15, 1998, Brian Jacomb, review of Someplace to Be Flying, p. 9.

Wordsworth, January, 1998, Mike Timonin, interview with de Lint.


ONLINE

Charles de Lint Home Page, http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint (June 14, 2004).*

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