Charles de Lint, The Harp of the Grey Rose:
The Legend of Cerin Songweaver
(Donning Company, 1985; Firebird, 2004)
Cerin lost both of his parents before he could remember them, and was raised by Tess Kelledy, a witch-wife who came from the tinker people. When Cerin comes of age, he feels set apart from the other boys of his village, but doesn't know why. Then he meets a mysterious girl, whom he calls the Grey Rose, and by pledging to be her friend and help her in any trouble, he changes his life forever. Before his story is done, he's travelled across kingdoms, saved the bards' city of Wistlore, loved a goddess, and become a famed harper.
Cerin's story is full of adventure, mystery, sorrow and magic. But I can't help feeling as though I've heard it all before. The Harp of the Grey Rose is one of Charles de Lint's earliest books, originally published in 1985 (although part of it, in short story form, was published even earlier, in 1979). Perhaps if I'd read it when it first came out, I'd have found it more interesting. Now, all of its elements have become much-used fantasy tropes, and de Lint doesn't apply much originality in his handling of them.
This is also 'high fantasy,' as opposed to most of what de Lint has written since, which is more modern, 'urban fantasy.' Now, I don't believe that 'high fantasy' has been done to death, but it needs some depth and complexity to keep my attention (see, for example, my enthusiastic review of Patricia A. McKillip's newest novel, Alphabet of Thorn). Or else it needs an unexpected treatment of a familiar element. Examples would include Diana Wynne Jones' The Dark Lord of Derkholm, which has 'fantasy safaris' being conducted on a magical world for tourists from our world; or the wise young heroine and her tough-talking but tiny friends in Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men.
In The Harp of the Grey Rose, dwarves are dwarves, just as Tolkien or Terry Brooks or any one of a half dozen other authors have written them. There are barrow wights, a city called Banlore, the Hills of the Dead, and raewin, antlered folk. None of them do anything, or are anything, except what we'd expect. One of the complaints about The Lord of the Rings is that so much of the book is taken up with travelling. However, one can at least say that the journey is believable you're quite sure that it would have taken that long for Frodo and Sam to walk to Mordor and back! Here, on the other hand, Cerin travels huge distances each time he has another adventure, seeming to be in another kingdom every twenty pages or so. After a while, all the locales start to blend together.
The only stand-out character in all this sameness is the bear-man Hickathrift Trummel. In him, one can see the beginnings of de Lint's later hobs, trolls and tricksters, all of those memorable people who are odd but large of heart. When Hickathrift appears in a scene, he dominates it. He deserves a nomination for 'Best Supporting Actor' in a story that has no other outstanding roles.
This isn't a bad book. It's just not very good. I might not judge it so harshly if I weren't so pleased with most of Charles de Lint's other books. De Lint is, far more often than not, a superb writer. For him, this is lukewarm, and hence more disappointing. De Lint completists will want to read it, but for anyone who's simply looking for good, solid, intriguing 'high fantasy,' there are lots of other great titles out there some of them even by de Lint.