I have struggled for a long time to work out, and clearly express, exactly what I feel is wrong with Charles de Lint’s later novels. I first read de Lint’s work back in the mid-80s when I stumbled across a copy of Yarrow. I was intrigued by his combination of magic and urban landscapes, and went on to read pretty much everything he wrote (to date I think the only Newford novel I’ve not read is Spirit in the Wires), and to like a great deal of it. It’s long been my feeling that he reached his peak back in 1994 when Tor published Memory and Dream. It seemed to me then, and still does now, to be the best expression of everything that he’s about: the magic, the love of art and artists, the opposition to abuses of power and so on.
In the following years though, as first Trader appeared, and then Someplace To Be Flying, Forests Of The Heart, and then The Onion Girl were published I increasingly struggled with his novels, and eventually thought I was going to stop altogether (which is why I skipped Spirits In The Wires). The reason, I’d begun to realise, was that the message had taken over the medium. De Lint’s love of art and artists, who are best loved in his stories, and his understandably passionate fight against those who would use their power to dominate and damage the defenceless consumed the stories he had to tell. Gradually, the stories became secondary, and the characters became mouthpieces. This was clearest in The Onion Girl, which focussing as it does on artist and survivor of abuse, Jilly Coppercorn, is also arguably closest to these two great concerns.
And yet, I went on to read The Blue Girl, which avoided a lot of this, and was de Lint’s strongest novel in a decade, and then over the weekend I read Widdershins. It’s a book I approached with real caution, advertising, as it does, the consummation at last of the relationship between two of de Lint’s longest running cast of characters. For the most part, it’s a terrific book, right up to the discussion of power and the abuse of power. At that point it becomes polemic, the characters flatten and become two dimensional as they use pretty much exactly the same language to express their views on the subject. Were they to approach the same subject differently, to not use the same expressions and so on, their views might appear to be that of a like-minded collective, but when a young girl and an aged Native American spirit both express the same view in the same language they seem more like mouthpieces for the author, rather than individual characters. While this is disappointing, it’s something I hope over time de Lint will work through (assuming he’d even see it as a problem) because there’s a lot in Widdershins to like. I guess I’ll be reading the next one after all.