Charles de Lint, Trader (Tor Books,1997)

There are few fantasy concepts that enamor Hollywood so much as that of people switching bodies. Jodie Foster did it for Disney way back in the kiddie flick Freaky Friday, and in the ensuing years La-La Land has recycled that vehicle for George Burns (18 Again), Judge Reinhold (Vice Versa) and Meg Ryan (Prelude To A Kiss). Which is all fine and good, since it's well-known that a Hollywood writer wouldn't recognize an original idea if it came up and bit him on the ass, but it's quite another thing when as talented writer as Canadian fantasist Charles de Lint takes on that clichéd premise.

Which is exactly what de Lint does in Trader. Max Trader is another in de Lint's long line of musical/artistic protagonists, who lead quiet, unassuming lives until the fantastic is thrust upon them. And Max is even more unassuming than most--and therein lies his dilemma. With no passion, no vigor anchoring him to his life, he wakes up one morning to find himself trapped in the body and the life of ne'er-do-well womanizer Johnny Devlin, who would do just about anything to ditch his past and start anew. Given that very opportunity with Max's body, Johnny makes the least of his new lease on life, squandering Max's bank accounts while leaving Max to deal with Johnny's bad debts, eviction and women scorned.

Fortunately for Max, his personality shines through even Johnny's disreputable exterior, and he slowly makes allies of Tanya and Zeffy, two women who've come out on the short end of Johnny's stick once too often. So far, so-so. For nearly the entire first half of the book, de Lint indulges in meandering character studies of Max and Johnny, exploring the question of identity, of "What makes us who we are?" Nothing earthshaking here, and not much that hasn't been done before, although de Lint, for the most part, does it better than his predecessors. And then, just when the reader feels he's got the book all figured out, Bones enters the picture, and all bets are off.

>Bones, an enigmatic, homeless Native American fortuneteller of sorts, energizes the story and takes the main characters in directions where the phrase "unexpected" is a gross understatement. North American mythology suddenly plays a significant part as the plot unfolds, and, so help me, things get damn funny in places. The resolution to the story isn't pat, and while it may be a tad too neat in cleaning up the mess Max's life has become, it's so unexpected that until the final page the reader wonders if de Lint will have the nerve to follow through with it.

When writers reach a certain point in their careers, where success has allowed for some experimentation, it becomes tempting to take up the challenge of a well-worn concepts and put their own stamp on it, hopefully improving on what has gone before. In this much, de Lint has succeeded. But it's only in the second half of Trader--or, more specifically the final third--where de Lint throws caution to the wind and lets his amazing imagination run wild that this book attains his signature mythic resonance found in Moonheart (TOR Books, 1984) and Someplace To Be Flying (TOR Books, 1998). So, ultimately, Trader is a mixed bag. It's easily one of the best, if not the best body-swapping novels ever written, but that only serves to reinforce the obvious: de Lint's at his best when he plays by his own rules in a game of his own invention, but with Trader, that invention is borrowed. As good as it is, for what it is, Trader, offers only a hint of what awaits in de Lint's other books.

[Jayme Lynn Blaschke]