Charles de Lint, Widdershins (Tor, 2006)

I have been calling what Charles de Lint writes urban fantasy. He calls it mythic fiction, and I think he's right. In fact, that may be a term that encompasses not only de Lint, but Neil Gaiman, John C. Wright, and a few others. Widdershins seems to have tied all the strands of de Lint's writing together into a seamless whole, with that mythic quality he creates right at the core, although in retrospect it should have irritated me more than it did. Chalk it up to de Lint's masterful storytelling.

The tale is a continuation of the story of Jilly Coppercorn and Geordie Riddell begun in The Onion Girl, although at first we meet Lizzie Mahone, a fiddler who is going back to the city after an out-of-town gig with her band when she runs afoul of a group of bogans who have been hunting forbidden game. She is saved from becoming a meal herself by Grey, one of the animal folk, a cousin of the Raven clan. Grey's story also becomes central, a long dance of revenge for the harm caused by an honest mistake. One upshot of Lizzie's encounter with the bogans and their kill is that she gains the respect and gratitude of Walker, the victim's father, who promises her aid should she ever need him. And she has been touched by the otherworld.

Writers tend to classify novels as plot-driven or character-driven, with the honors in most cases going to character. Books are, after all, about people, and it is their actions and reactions that will move the story along most believably. Although I count Widdershins as definitely a character book, after the first couple of scenes the plot becomes so complex, with so many strands, as to defy any clear retelling. Ultimately, we are left with two stories, Jilly's and Grey's, that touch on each other in significant ways, a reflection of de Lint's view that the universe is one thing and we are all in it together.

This book, and the other Newford stories I've read, seem to have melded de Lint's universe completely. In earlier works such as Moonheart and Greenmantle (which I consider one of his finest, and most disturbing), the otherworlds exist but there is a separation, a more-or-less sharply defined boundary between them and the mundane world. Widdershins does a lot to erase that boundary, with characters moving back and forth fluidly and easily, with fairies and cousins inhabiting the mundane world as a matter of course, and with cell phones operating across the boundaries.

De Lint is also, as he puts it, coloring outside the lines: structurally and stylistically, the book is adventurous. Episodic, the narrative shifts from character to character, but the storytelling is not all done the same way. Jilly's chapters, as well as those of Geordie and Grey, are told in first-person, while the rest are in third person, which is a device that always brings the reader closer to the character. And Grey's narrative is in present tense, giving not only a sense of immediacy to the events, but also revealing a fundamental difference in character between the cousins and the other characters. The cousins live in the now, and, despite his protestations that he has assimilated the European concept of time as something that involves a future and a past, we see that Grey is very much in the present. The contrast with Jilly and Geordie, who are too much in the past, is a key element of the book.

Why might I find this book irritating? De Lint does have a tendency to be talky, but he normally keeps it under firm control. I don't mind it when it's a matter of one character explaining the universes to another -- that's an expected and accepted form of exposition, although perhaps not the most sophisticated. It's hard to say where the boundary is, however, between exposition and preachiness. It's somewhat subjective, and my own criterion is that if I notice, it's too much. It seems to me the role of any form of art is to mediate causes, not to serve as propaganda. We expect art to be an interface between us and the messages of the world, to bring the emotional truth home, and to espouse those messages bluntly is to lose some of the force of the art. And so Guernica becomes a chillingly effective illustration of the horror of war. the Mass in B Minor becomes a transcendant vision of the glory of God. Macbeth becomes a sobering study of the destructiveness of unbridled ambition. We don't need Picasso or Bach or Shakespeare to explain it to us in so many words. Consequently, although I'm certainly not going to condemn de Lint's linked messages that we are all in this together and that Western materialism is destructive (among its other attributes), nor would I want to, in this case he veers far enough over the line that it becomes heavy-handed.

Jilly's story, which forms the core of the novel, is by the same token the least satisfying. It is a long working out of the scars left by childhood sexual abuse, which is a theme that has insinuated itself into speculative fiction more and more in recent years, although to my mind the best example so far is still Anne Bishop's Black Jewels Trilogy. If one is going to include a measure of introspection in a novel, it should provide strong illustration of character as well as moving the story along (unless, of course, one is James Joyce or William Faulkner, in which case it becomes the story). Especially in a story like this, in which the introspection -- in this case, a literal world inside Jilly's head -- is about something before which the hero is powerless, it is best handled succinctly. We don't need pages and pages of heroic helplessness. We all have our ghosts. I know they're there -- I don't need my nose rubbed in it.

Now that's off my chest, I do recommend Widdershins very highly. As I said, chalk it up to de Lint's masterful storytelling, because he is a storyteller of the highest order. The characters alone are worth the time -- not only Jilly, Geordie, Grey and Lizzie, but the crow girls (I would love to see this book as a film for them alone); Lucius Portsmouth, the Raven who pulled the world out of a pot; Rabedy Collins, the bogan who doesn't want to be one; Joe Crazy Dog, who has the gift of peace and holds deep inside him an ancient and frightening power; Christiana, Christy Riddell's shadow, with her own not inconsiderable potency; and all the others, without exception deftly drawn and subtly colored. And of course, there is that blend of the magical and the real that only de Lint seems to be able to pull off.

[Robert M. Tilendis]