Charles de Lint, The Dreaming Place (Byron Preiss, 1990; Firebird, 2002)

A close friend of mine first introduced me to Charles de Lint. She showed me a short story and said I had to read it. I took the anthology, but wasn't expecting too much -- after all, we have different tastes in reading material. The story was "The Conjure Man" and it hooked me, and even my mother, who is not much of a fantasy fan, enjoyed the story. After reading this, I knew I had to get my hands on more of de Lint's writing.

Fortunately it was 1989, and Greenmantle and Moonheart had both been released in Australia. I devoured them hungrily, and then went looking for more of his works, but to my dismay there were no more, at least not in Australia. Every week I combed the shelves looking for more and every year I was rewarded with one book.

One day I discovered a new specialist bookstore, Pulp Fiction, in Brisbane, which catered to lovers of science fiction / fantasy and crime / mystery. Even better, they were willing to import from America (most Australian bookstores do not because they cannot return unsold stock as they can do with Australian and British publishers). All my dreams had come finally come true -- I had access to more de Lint.

One day I walked into the store and they had a surprise waiting for me -- a book that not only was written by de Lint but also illustrated by Brian Froud (by now the owners knew me too well) That book was The Dreaming Place.

The Dreaming Place is set in Newford, a city of de Lint's imagination, which comes to life in his writing. Anyone who has read any of the Newford stories will recognise many of the places, such as Lower Crowsea, as well as the characters such as Bones. It is the story of cousins, Nina and Ash, different as night and day. Ash and Nina share a room after Ash's mother dies and her hippie aunt and uncle take her in. Nina is a clean cut, all-American kid doing well at school, while Ash gets bad grades, misses a lot of school and dabbles in magic.

We enter the story where Nina is having nightmares in which she finds herself in the bodies of animals. She finds herself lost and confused, unable to make the animal's body perform its normal functions. Then one day her transmutation into an animal body happens while she is sitting at the bus stop. All of a sudden, the dream world has moved into reality. Nina is sure that Ash is behind all this, having set a hex on her. Ash has problems of her own. She is finding herself being followed by a strange man, whom she is sure means her harm.

The story alternates each chapter between the viewpoints of the two girls. At times this ploy doesn't work well, but de Lint has pulled it off by covering the same events from two different viewpoints. Instead, the story flows well. As the story unfolds, we see the two girls coming to terms with each other. In its own way, it is a coming of age story. The two girls come to discover, after sharing a room for three years, a lot of insight into themselves, and that they each have their part to play in the world. I have always marveled at how well de Lint is able to create female characters. At one stage I wondered if it was a woman, writing under a pseudonym. How many men could get so deep into the female psyche and actually get it right? So often I have read male authors' versions of female characters that just don't seem real. De Lint's female characters are true to life.

As always, de Lint introduces us to some wonderful characters. There is Ash's best friend, Cassie, the tarot-card-using fortuneteller, who by choice is a street person. Then there is Cassie's partner Bones, who tells fortunes using the bones. There are also Nina's parents, who never left their hippie days behind. Even though, at times, Nina finds them a little embarrassing, she respects them for holding onto their beliefs.

This is a wonderful story, and highly recommended for young adults as well as adults. It is a beautifully-presented hardback, which is sparingly illustrated with tarot card designs by Brian Froud in black and white. Now that would definitely be a deck I'd like to own if it is ever marketed.

[Marian McHugh]