Charles de Lint, The Blue Girl
I have read nearly everything that de Lint has done, fiction-wise. Really. Truly. Almost all of it fiction has been good enough to warrant repeated readings, and very little of it disappointed me. So do take note when I say The Blue Girl is his best effort in many years. It is the equal of Someplace To Be Flying and Forests of The Heart, on a less grand scale. No crow girls here, no greenman, no demigods running around here -- just two seventeen year-old women, a male teenage ghost, one "oh, dear, he's real" childhood companion, and some rather nasty household brownies. Not to mention what appears to be soul eaters. Just your typical day in the life of a teenager in Newford!
That's the short summary. The longer look at this lovely novel can be given by quoting the dust jacket copy that Sharyn November sent me:
Seventeen-year-old Imogene's tough, rebellious nature has caused her more harm than good -- so when her family moves to Newford, she decides to reinvent herself. She won't lose her punk/thrift-shop look, but she'll try to avoid the gangs, work a little harder at school, and maybe even stay out of trouble for a change. Her first friend at Redding High, Maxine, is her exact opposite. Everyone considers Maxine a straight-A loser, but as Imogene soon learns, it's really Maxine's overprotective mother whose rules about clothes and curfews make it impossible for her to speak up for her true self. Oddly, the friendship works. Imogene helps Maxine loosen up and break a few rules, and in turn, Maxine keeps Imogene in line. But trouble shows up anyway. Imogene quickly catches the eye of Redding's A-list bullies, as well as the school's resident teenage ghost. Then she gets on the wrong side of a gang of malicious fairies. When her old imaginary childhood friend Pelly actually manifests, Imogene realises that the impossible is all too real. And it's dangerous. If she wants to survive high school -- not to mention stay alive -- she has to fall back on the skills she picked up in her hometown, running with a gang. Even with Maxine and some unexpected allies by her side, will she be able to make it?
If you are not yet a fan of this very talented author, The Blue Girl is an ideal way to discover him because prior knowledge of his Newford universe is not required as it is in much of his recent work.Though The Blue Girl is set in that city, the story itself requires very little, if any, knowledge of the that universe. This novel is much more intimate, more personal feeling, than most of the Newford novels are. Imogene -- the Blue Girl -- comes across as very real, a normal young female with the pluck and intelligence to overcome a less than desirable personal history, while Maxine is her new chum at Redding High School, as Imogene has just moved to Newford from Tyson.
(Digression time. I generally hate the so-called Young Adult fiction that's on the market these days as the characters in them that are supposed to be between ten years old and seventeen years old don't feel right. I can't put my finger on what's precisely wrong with them but they come off as caricatures of what they should be. Now that's not always true as Holly Black in Tithe created memorable young adults, and Midori Snyder did the same in Hannah's Garden.)
Despite its trappings of magic realism -- yes, it is magic realism at its very finest and the equal of the best that Alice Hoffman and Terri Windling have done -- what really makes this tale work is the fact that everyone who's a principal character is someone I could picture meeting. Even the ghost comes across as a troubled teen who just got a raw deal out of life, and now has an even rawer deal in death. And the plot reflects the real feeling of these characters as everything that happens flows from who they are. Just consider the conversation that Imogene and Maxine have early on in their relationship:
Maxine got an odd look. "You must have seen Ghost."
This was good, I thought. A nickname was a start.
"How'd he get the name?" I asked, though I could guess from the way he kept disappearing on me.
"Because he really is a ghost. People have been seeing him for years."
I waited for a punch line, but it didn't come.
"You're kidding," I said.
"Why would I joke about something like that?"
"I don't know."
"If you don't believe me," she said, "ask somebody else. Though I should warn you. Popular wisdom has it that only losers ever see him."
Everything in The Blue Girl has the advantage of being grounded in the relationship of a group of people who just happen to live where very weird things happen. In a sense, it has a uncanny resemblance to Sunnydale, the city where Buffy and the Scooby Gang lived, high schoolers with a Hellmouth beneath the school. However, de Lint is a much better portrayer of relationships than Whedon was in that series. Now I admit that writing narrative allows more room for character development than writing a script for a weekly 43-minute television series, but I tried reading a couple of the Buffy novels and they were just as awful at developing the characters. Indeed Imogene and Maxine are having an off-the-wall conversation about a supposed ghost, but it's tinged with the awareness that seeing this ghost is something which 'only losers' do. If this was the Buffyverse, the ghost would be simply something to destroy, in all likelihood. Here, it's part of the reality of those who are the High School community.
I started this review by noting that I have read nearly everything that de Lint has done in fiction. Indeed, I've read the music reviews he did in The Canadian Folk Music Bulletin and his book column in F&S. That means I've read him for almost twenty years now, and that means I can say that he has grown much better as a writer over the decades. The Blue Girl is from a writer who has practised his craft to the point that, like a fiddler who knows just the right tune to play, I anticipate -- and correctly so -- that each new work of fiction from him will be well-worth my time to read. The Blue Girl, like The Wood Wife from Terri Windling, or Practical Magic from Alice Hoffman, is a novel that will require rereading from time to time. It's that good!
One final note before I take my leave of you. Though, as I noted above, prior knowledge of his Newford universe is not required, long-time de Lint fans will find many well-placed references to previous tales set in the Newford universe. Like Robert Heinlein's Future History or Larry Niven's Known Space series, this author has invented a lovely place to set tales. In some cases, it will send you looking to the story in order to read it again. Indeed there is one major character here who appeared in (I believe) but one previous tale. Who is that, you ask? Just go find out for yourself as I'm not telling!
This is the finest Young Adult novel I've read to date. Enjoy it for yourself!