The premise of Charles de Lint's latest book is that the fairies, spirits and mythological creatures of the Gaelic world have followed the Irish immigrants to America. While there is nothing original in this idea, de Lint has gone deeper into the social dynamics of the refugees' arrival. Would they all settle and integrate, or would there be a ferocious turf war between the newcomers and the spirits of the Native Americans?
De Lint is a master of urban fantasy, whatever that is in theory. In practice, his books usually involve magical creatures and spirits making their presences felt in the streets, alleys, bars and shops of one of his Canadian cities. Many of his books are set partly in his imaginary Newford, where you would think by now all the inhabitants would be used to fairies or Manitou walking the streets.
Forests of the Heart touches Newford, but it also skips skilfully from city to woods, to desert and to the otherworld. As well as mythology from the British Isles and Native American cultures, de Lint adds to the mix of this book a Mexican-Catholic witch, whose father is a hawk, and sits back to watch the magics clash.
Bettina, taught the old magics by her grandmother, sees the black-suited men gathering outside her house and calls them Los Lobos - wolves. But to people who frequent the bars and clubs of Newford, they are known as the 'hard men', men who bear a grudge easily and take out their grievances in blood.
Bettina is sure the wolves are lying in wait for her. But instead, the hard men are watching for the sculptress Ellie, who unknowingly has the ability to create a magical gateway to power and control.
There are plenty of other characters who get involved with the hard men. Ellie's colleague, Tommy, a Native American; her ex-boyfriend, Donal, who knows more than he's telling about the hard men's plan; Donal's sister, Miki, and her employer, Hunter.
One of de Lint's particular strengths is his ability to show several different viewpoints and weave all the different characters together into the story. He can get you interested in the fates of even his less likable people. Less well-rounded are his older characters, the ones on the fringes of the action. These are either more stereotypical, or they refuse to develop and change.
For Forests of the Heart is very much about rights of passage for grown-ups. Both Bettina and Ellie have to come to terms with their respective powers, and Bettina has to learn to merge her separate magical heritages. Donal has to grow up and face himself, even if it's the last thing he does. Miki and Hunter and Tommy all have to grow into themselves.
It is also concerned with rejection and belonging. The hard men have been rejected by their mother, and all they really want - apart from a good punch-up - is territory of their own. The delightful Los Cadejos, the wild spirit dogs, are simply searching for a home. Some characters reject their humanity, in part because of the rejection they themselves feel. And, the wolf who doesn't run with the pack is created from the shadows of everything the hard men have thrown away from themselves.
This is an imaginative, entertaining book for everyone who enjoys magical fantasy. It is well-structured and easy to read, with some pleasingly mature moral uncertainties.
Only two tiny criticisms, barely worth mentioning: I thought it was a trifle slow to get going, and I don't personally like de Lint's habit of throwing in plenty of foreign words - in this case Mexican Spanish - which are italicised in the text. On the other hand, I suppose I got a bit of a language lesson as well as a good read!
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© Meredith MacArdle 29 September 2001