Ever found yourself in a bad place, feeling trapped, with hardly any way to go? A situation that perhaps seems so dark, so miserable as to make you just want to find any sort of release? Or perhaps have you ever seen people close to you become so despondent that they just seem to shrink into their own body shells and just wither away on the inside? If so, have you ever read stories that just seem to take those worst elements of our lives, twist them about, show all of their ugliness in a bright shining mirror, causing a fading of all that darkness and a renewal of hope?
In many ways, whenever I read a Charles de Lint story, it's as though he just knows what it's like to be down and out and he sets out to put it all there on paper, warts and mistakes and all, in order to expose those festering dark things to the light of a renewed hope. I know there are many who claim to read fantasy for "escape," but it is impossible to "escape" from such sordid things such as rape, abuse, neglect, and drug and other addictions when reading de Lint. Instead, he chooses to confront each of these fears and evils in his stories. The results may not always be pretty, but they certain are cathartic.
In the first of two de Lint books that I received and read this past week, the just-reprinted 1995 collection The Ivory and the Horn, de Lint shows through the eyes of many characters many of the places, such as the broken-down and ghetto-like the Tombs, that he would later explore at length in his full-length novels set in the mythical town of Newford. Whether it be the down-on-her luck Maisie, the aptly-named charitable worker Angel, the caring free-spirit/artist Jilly Coppercorn, or the self-conscious Brenda, each of these characters has a complex and dark history, one that threatens to overwhelm them in these 15 stories included here.
When I read these tales over a three-day period, I noticed that de Lint spends a lot of time concentrating on issues of salvaging what can be salvaged in a person. These characters, most of them women, have been through hell in many cases. Although I will talk about Jilly more later in this dual review, her plight, which is hinted at in bits and pieces in the centerpiece story "The Wishing Well" and in other stories and novels (including the novels The Onion Girl (2002) and Widdershins (2006)), is one that sets the tone for this collection. She is hopeful and cheerful, but under that is a determined fighter who cannot rest for a moment in her fight against her inner demons. She is there in crucial places to lend strength to friends such as Brenda, who have succumbed to their own inner demons. De Lint personifies these nefarious impulses and addictions by using various guises in these stories, but he also has fleeting forces of good to appear, sometimes in the form of a dead woman or a mysterious elder, in order to help that person make a new start.
"The Wishing Well," at around 70 pages, makes up almost one-quarter of the collection. It serves as a prime example of de Lint's rather personal, sometimes dark approach towards telling his stories. Starring Brenda, a newspaper editor friend of Jilly and Wendy, it is a cautionary tale of self-consciousness and the perils that our image-conscious society on those who just only want to fit in and not stand out. Told in a mixture of PoVs, from Brenda's to her friends to her new boyfriend, the tale jumps and skitters about. Sometimes, it appears it's about to go off the rails and lose its focus, only to return with a vengeance to Brenda. Slavic rusalka, water/fertility nymphs, make a mysterious appearance in this tale of longing and of self-loathing. Although I will not give away the ending, I will say that it is fitting for the general tone of the collection: there are no easy answers, only opportunities to live and fight another day.
As a collection, The Ivory and the Horn was very enjoyable to read. Despite the occasional passage that dragged or the sense that a few of the stories could have been pruned, de Lint has a strong, positive message of hope and possible redemption in these stories. Although this poem by Theodore Roethke is never cited in any of the de Lint books that I've read, I think the opening stanza from his "The Waking" serves as a perfect summation of The Ivory and the Horn:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
But perhaps after reading The Ivory and the Horn or perhaps maybe a novel, say The Onion Girl or Widdershins due to their shared main character, you want to read more about Jilly Coppercorn and her origins. If The Onion Girl reveals a darkness in Jilly's past that returns to haunt her or if Widdershins serves as a coda of sorts, what about the "lost years" not cover by either story?
In this just-released short novel (clocking in at 173 pages) published by Subterranean Press in a limited-edition format, Promises to Keep focuses on the period of time after Jilly fled her abusive home life as a young teen but before she had completed the transformation into the artist Jilly Coppercorn that fans of de Lint have come to know and love.
Promises to Keep, set in Newford in 1972, deals with Jilly's past confronting her in the form of a youth home friend, Donna, who has miraculously reappeared in Jilly's life about four years after she had escaped from a downward spiral of drug addiction and prostitution. Donna seems to have reformed her life as well, being a member of a proto-punk band, and she invites Jilly to a concert. However, this concert is scheduled in a location that appears not to exist in this world and it is from there that the story, told both in flashback and in the literary present, begins.
Jilly finds herself confronting her demons in a place that serves as a metaphor for our desires for an easy reformation of our lives. What if we were given a chance to be happy, with only one little string attached? Would we be content to live in a place where the rules were already determined and that "escape" would be nigh impossible?
De Lint uses this situation presented to serve as an allegory for addiction and dependency. This is underscored by the concern, fear, and anger that Jilly's friends and loved ones feel towards her when they learn that she has disappeared on them. Because addiction is as much of a condition as it is a disease, de Lint highlights via the plot tensions just how pervasive such things can be in our thought systems, even when addicts think they have it beaten. How Jilly deals with this in storyline form (it would not be a spoiler to say that since this is a flashback episode to a point earlier in Jilly's life, that Jilly survives this scary situation) makes for a very jarring but yet ultimately enjoyable read.
While Promises to Keep does not pack the emotional punch to the junk that The Onion Girl did for me, it is a novel that is well worth reading, especially for fans of de Lint's prior works. A caveat, however: although de Lint himself claims in the blurb that Promises to Keep can serve as an excellent introduction to his Newford novels, I would suggest that the reader read his other works first, as much of the power of reading this comes from knowing what traumas Jilly has endured after the events of this novel have transpired. This, however, is a minor quibble in what I consider to be a worthy addition to most anyone's reading list.
Summary: Both The Ivory and the Horn and Promises to Keep are excellent examples of this nebulous entity called "contemporary urban fantasy." The stories are set in a mythical North American town called Newford and contain various recurring characters, with Jilly Coppercorn being the main character in the novel Promises to Keep. Told in a mixture of first and limited third-person PoVs, de Lint's stories tend to deal with rather "adult" themes such as neglect, abuse, and addiction, as well as the ways that people are warned by "spirits" about the paths that they follow. In most cases, there is a sense of redemption presented for the characters to seize, but the reader is shown that this redemption is but the beginning of what probably will be a long and arduous journey for the characters. Despite a few passages that are a bit lengthy and expository in nature, de Lint's writing and characterization generally are strong enough to elicit strong emotional reactions from many readers. Highly recommended for those who prefer their fantasy tales to contain recipes on how to deal with some very difficult "real world" issues.
Promises to Keep: September 25, 2007 (US), Hardcover
The Ivory and the Horn: October 2, 2007 (US; reprint), Tradeback
Promises to Keep: Subterranean Press
The Ivory and the Horn: Orb (an imprint of Tor)