Charles de Lint, Spirits in the Wires (Tor, 2003)

I was expecting the advance uncorrected proof of Charles de Lint's Spirits in the Wires, the latest tale out of Newford, to arrive on Monday. By Tuesday, I was pacing. It finally came via Fedex early Tuesday evening, and I finished it Wednesday night. As with previous de Lint books, my repeated stern self-scolding, "Don't gulp! You're reviewing this!" had absolutely no effect. I guess I'll just have to re-read it, so I can take more time to savor various scenes and turns of phrase again. Poor me.

If I were reviewing this novel for a "blurb" review magazine like Booklist, I'd probably say something like: "Very enjoyable and tightly written. Everything hangs together. And the concept is riveting." All true, but ever so much more so.

The first thing I noticed (actually, I realized it upon later reflection, since it's the sort of thing that, if done right, you don't notice) is that de Lint, as usual, excels at "storytelling" here. He knows his pacing. He intersperses action with description and explication deftly, so that I never feel either rushed or dragged. When a scene is building up to intense confrontation — such as the encounter between Robert, the immortal blues man, and the Hellhounds who are determined to end his gig forever — he uses powerful descriptive words and pours on the active voice to increase speed. When things slow down and the characters are stopping for a breath or a bite, he very naturally drops in a lush description of the scenery or a conversation about the why's and wherefore's of what's happening. And when the crisis has been reached and he's heading down the slope toward the dénouement, he sends the narrative flying quicker and quicker until it swirls into the conclusion. I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, while my tea got cold and the room went dark; I almost forgot to turn on the light.

Another thing I noted with a satisfied smile is de Lint's by-now trademark mixing of all sorts of mythologies and folk traditions, including some that are uniquely his own. Legba (a crossroads spirit from the voudoun tradition), Meran the Oak King's daughter, and Raven-who-made-the-world all cross paths with Malicorne the unicorn woman and Christiana, a Jungian shadow come to life, on the streets of Newford, de Lint's imaginary American — or is it Canadian? — city. Or they meet up in the "borderlands," known as Meadhon to its inhabitants and as àbitawehì-akì to the Kickaha. When they come face to face, these denizens of different traditions treat one another with a sort of humorous respect that hints at long acquaintance. Although if the music's good, you might find them dancing together, too....

But de Lint doesn't stop with juxtaposing myths from hither and yon. He also spikes the mix with liberal amounts of popular and grassroots culture, musical, visual and literary. Robert Johnson makes an appearance, as does a reference to Richard Thompson's red-haired girl in black leather on a motorcycle. And then there're links to Project Gutenberg and the "feral peter pans" of Google. De Lint grafts these familiar bits from our world so skillfully into the lives of Christy and Geordie Riddell and Holly Rue that the effect is to make them — and Newford itself — seem real, as if they lived just around the corner from us. I've surreptitiously typed the URL of the Wordwood (a Web site created by Holly and her friends) into my own browser just to see what comes up. And I know I'm not the only reader who has.

So far, though, I could be talking about almost any of Charles de Lint's urban fantasy novels. What makes Spirits in the Wires new and exciting? What about "the concept is riveting"? Ah, here's where it gets really interesting. De Lint takes the idea of cyberspace developing a personality (or personalities) of its own, a lá William Gibson, and goes one step further. It seems the gods are going online. One spirit in particular has taken up residence in the Wordwood, a sort of repository of literature and literary references that used bookstore owner Holly Rue started with several techie friends a few years ago. Or is it that the Wordwood has developed a new spirit of its own? Either way, the site has seemingly removed itself from all servers and exists somehow in between the electronic messages and cables of the internet. If you try to look at its source code, you won't find any. And you can have conversations any time of the day or night with its mysterious Webmaster, who seems to be always online. OK, so that's not so unusual; I have several online friends who never seem to log off or sleep. But the really unusual thing is that, no matter who you are, this Webmaster sounds just like someone you trust and respect — your grandfather, perhaps, or an old professor.

But even if the Wordwood has no visible source code, it turns out that it can still be hacked. What happens when a very powerful spirit gets a virus and begins to self-destruct? And what about all the folks who happen to be logged onto the site at the time?

In the author's note to Spirits, de Lint says, in an almost apologetic tone of voice, that he's aware that this is "the second novel in a row to feature my regular repertory company of Newford characters taking their turn on the main stage, rather than going on about their lives in the background of the books as they usually do." I say "hurrah!" (And I know that Cat Eldridge, at least, agrees with me.) It may be more interesting for de Lint, as a writer, to develop stories about new characters and new situations, but one reason that I come back to Newford again and again is to see old friends, even if only glimpses of them. I absolutely revelled in spending more time with Saskia and Holly, two characters I've wanted to know better. And I found myself grinning with delight when Borrible Jones, a tinker who has obvious ties to the tinker culture of de Lint's novel Mulengro, enters the scene. At the same time, watching the development of Christiana Tree, a newcomer who began life as the shadow of a long-time Newford inhabitant (which one? I'm not saying....), was equally enjoyable. And now she'll become one of my "old friends." I can't wait to see her in Newford again. When's the next book coming out, Mr. de Lint?

[Grey Walker]