Charles de Lint, Moonheart (Ace Books, 1984)
Charles de Lint, Spiritwalk (Tor Books, 1992)
Moonheart may very well be the first novel by Charles de Lint that I ever read. I can't really say for sure -- it's been awhile. It certainly is one that I reread periodically, a fixture on my "reread often" list. It contains, in an early form, all the magic that keeps us coming back to de Lint.
It's a novel that is centered on a Place, a location that is a portal between worlds. In this case, Tamson House, the home of Jamie Tams and Sarah Kendell, among others, is a portal between the World Beyond -- our world -- and the Otherworlds, those places inhabited by the spirits and seers and shamans of both the Native traditions and the folklore of the European immigrants. The story is about an ancient evil that has bided its time and is now ready to strike. It is an evil born in ancient Gwynedd, the result of a curse by the bard Taliesin when he was cast adrift in exile. Thomas Hengwr, a sage and wizard, has been training Kieran Foy as his apprentice to help in the fight against the evil, which he believes is Taliesin gone bad. Kieran and Sarah are cast into the Otherworlds by the quin'on'a, Native spirits. Sarah, having accidentally traveled through time, meets Taliesin. In the meantime, Mal'ek'a, The Evil That Walks Nameless, has attacked Tamson House. There are many more layers and many more characters than this, all adding to the richness of the story, but too numerous to recount here. And, as tends to be the case with de Lint, the plot is not the most important part of the story.
Moonheart was my first experience with de Lint's own idiosyncratic -- well, call it cosmogony, because it might as well be, a mythic structure of Native spirits, ancient Celtic gods and faerie (and I do mean ancient -- we're talking Cernunnos here, the Horned God found from the British Isles to India, none of your latecomers like Queen Mab). De Lint characterizes his writing as "mythic fiction" and that really makes a lot of sense. He's done nothing so shallow as to incorporate fairies and elves as characters and let it go at that. He reaches back to the meanings of those kinds of characters and comes up with a new synthesis, a layered universe in which certain beings travel back and forth and have an impact far out of proportion to their actual deeds. Plop these kinds of meanings down in and around the world of contemporary Ottawa and you have a particularly rich context for an exposition on the Big Questions: de Lint's ongoing theme is really "what is moral behavior?" His answer revolves around what I can only characterize as "community," a sense of belonging to the world as an active participant, incorporating a willingness to undertake responsibility for that world. Moonheart is certainly one of the best early examples of his explorations.
Spiritwalk is a loose sequel to Moonheart, a series of related tales, again centering around Tamson House and including many of the same characters. In fact, the House is even more important as a Place in this group of stories. It begins with a brief discussion of Tamson House from a book by Christy Riddell, whom we will meet again in The Onion Girl and Widdershins, followed by a delightful vignette, "Merlin Dreams in the Mondream Wood," of Sarah Kendell, age seventeen, remembering her childhood "imaginary" playmate, a red-haired boy named Merlin who lived in the oak tree at the center of the garden. It's a sweet, sad tale of the price of love.
The bulk of the book is three closely related novellas, "Ascian in Rose," "Westlin Wind," and "Ghostwood." All involve Blue, the biker with a sensitive soul who is now caretaker and in all important respects sole permanent resident of Tamson House (Sarah spends much of her time in the Otherworlds with Taliesin); Emma Fenn, who has the gift of understanding the language of trees and at the beginning of the story has been split in two by the machinations of a not-very-nice woodwife named Glamorgana, who has ambitions; Esmerelda Foylan, another seeker on the Way; and, in the last story, Albert Watkins, the Neighbor from Hell.
The first two in this group are classic de Lint, tales of magic, love, and redemption. They do, in fact, contain some of his best characterizations and most compelling storytelling. Both are tales of rescue, the first with Blue as a knight on shining Harley, the second with Esmerelda treading forbidden paths out of friendship. Emma Fenn, in particular, as an unwilling bearer of a magical gift, is a fascinating study of the interplay of rebellion and resignation leading to a hard but ultimately correct decision as to who she will be. She's an excellent example of de Lint's many variations on the Socratic dictum, "know thyself."
I have never liked "Ghostwood." It is not one of de Lint's best stories. Albert Watkins, although he appears little in the story, is the kind of character -- a walking, talking, but nevertheless abstract evil -- for whom I have no interest and who drags the story down to a level that is out of keeping with the rest of the book. In this case, "Ghostwood" devolves into something akin to gothic horror dressed up as urban fantasy. It's really a replay of Moonheart, but without the magic and without the love, both of which are essential ingredients in any de Lint story worthy of the name.
This is not to say that Spiritwalk is a bad book overall, it's just not what it could have been with a stronger finish.
In a note at the beginning of Spiritwalk, de Lint says that familiarity with Moonheart is recommended but hopefully not necessary. It's probably not absolutely necessary, but a certain measure of coherence is lost without knowing Moonheart. (I might also note that the two novels, Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon, later published as Jack of Kinrowan are brought into this group by a reference in "Ascian in Rose," creating what is, in actuality, a loose quartet. In addition, Tamson House gets mentioned briefly in Jack the Giant Killer.The events in the Jack of Kinrowan novels take place somewhere between Moonheart and Spiritwalk.)
For those familiar with de Lint's career, it's interesting to see the seeds of what became Newford, with its seamless melding of Native and European mythic traditions brought into the contemporary world. These two make a good de Lint marathon, with Jack of Kinrowan as a light-hearted and sometimes hysterically funny interlude.