Sharon Shinn, Charles de Lint

“I think it’s a standalone novel”, she said.

As a wise animation often said, “What a maroon.” After reading fantasy for all these years, I honestly thought that Mystic and Rider wasn’t part of at least a trilogy? *shakes head* It’s the first of The Twelve Houses, a five-book series.

Well, good. There’s a small part of me that whispers that had the pace of the tale been a bit less leisurely it could have been a shorter series – but when writing and characters are this good why would I want it shorter? Except for the small fact that now I have to buy the other four books (three are on their way now – why didn’t I just order all four? Oh, right – $).   I’ll hopefully pick the series back up shortly after I receive them.

(As usual, *SPOILERS*)

For some reason, maybe the few other books I’ve read by Sharon Shinn, I started Mystic and Rider with an expectation of challenging, poetic, solidly assured and confident writing. While it was beautifully written, it wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought I detected something of the opposite, in terms of confidence; it made me think of a stone that had been polished to a luster, but in such a way (hastily, or, as I said, without confidence) that a scattering of tiny patches were missed: an awkwardness of language here, a surprising repetition of a word or phrase there. Nothing major, hardly even minor, just barely noticeable.

It was, as I think I said, mainly the way the story was told that puzzled me. It had a rather classic fantasy opening, which served to introduce all the characters from a newcomer’s point of view (always helpful to a reader)… the only problem with that, and I should go back and read the first chapter again when I pick up Book 2, was that for some reason I came away from the introduction of characters with the impression that Tayse and Senneth were a couple from page one. Probably my own careless reading, nothing more, but I’m curious about where I got that.

It was partly the opening that made it feel like a D&D adventure: an established traveling group discovers a special young man who is being abused partly because of his specialness and pulls off a very cool rescue; the episodic nature of the journey heightened the feeling. The decision of where to go next, the getting there, what happened there, cleaning up any messes or fleeing in the middle of the night, as necessary, the decision of where to go next, the getting there… and so on. It’s true that with each stop the danger to the group ratcheted up, slightly, or at least they learned more about the dangers, but it was all still so unhurried for the most part that it felt most like an exercise in character development.

With characters like these, that’s not a bad thing. There were the Riders, Justin, who hated everyone except Tayse for various reasons, and Tayse, older and experienced and not all that trusting himself: Justin spoke only to Tayse, and Tayse spoke only to God… A pair of walking weapons sworn to obey their king, their only priority, but wondering a bit why their king sent them off with all these mystics. The latter: Kirra, a healer and shapeshifter, a noblewoman (of one of the Twelve Houses) who is quite fortunate that her father loved her enough not to eject her when he found out about her powers, and who is beautiful and strong-willed and charming; Donnal, who was plucked from poverty to train beside her when his powers were discovered, and whose devotion to her and her house is almost as strong as the Riders’ to the king; Cammon, who doesn’t know what he is (or much else, though that’s through no fault of his own and he’s learning quickly), who’s known nothing but pain and abandonment and yet is sweet-natured and willing; and Senneth, who’s very enigmatic and very powerful and very conflicted. And who finds herself thinking far too much about Tayse… who finds himself thinking far too much about her, none of which is at all convenient, because of their duties and responsibilities. Convenient or not, it’s going to be part of the braided spine of the series, and I’m glad.

The unhurried nature of the story also allows for Senneth to affect another rescue besides that of Cammon: They find that a small village they pass through is suffering from the slaughter of not only pets and livestock but also several people, all found savaged, and that there is a growing hysteria in the village. And mystics are being blamed. Our heroes quickly discover that of course it isn’t anything human: it’s a cat called a raelynx, sort of a cross between a wildcat and Jack the Ripper, a red-furred ball of hate and hunger. Happily, it’s a young one, or there apparently wouldn’t have been anyone left in the village by the time the troupe got there. Senneth is able to attain control over the creature’s mind, and when they leave it is with the cat pacing the group furiously, unwillingly, but unwaveringly held. How it got where it was no one knows; its natural habitat is quite a ways away, in the Lirrens, which is a very odd country indeed – and therein lies the next book, I believe, because the king’s new queen I spoke of in the last post may in fact be from there and the raelynx is to be taken back.

I like the king; I like the idea of the queen; I very much like the group that traveled through the first book, and will be as sorry as they were if the end of the book means the end of the group. Which it should, by all the internal rules of the book; Justin and Tayse serve the king, and go and do as the king dictates. The king is apparently dictating that one Rider go with Senneth, but not two. Cammon needs to begin training; I don’t know about Kirra and Donnal… It’s like a tight-knit office which closes, or a movie cast when filming’s complete: they’ve spent so much time together, with all their disparate personalities they’ve become close – and now the reason they were together is no more, so the little family is broken up.

The upshot: I loved it, with whatever small flaws it had, and I look forward to the rest of the series. And the other Sharon Shinn books I have yet to read: which is most of them. How wonderful.

While waiting for the Amazon order to arrive (and it seems to be taking forever: May 6, they say. *sigh*), I’ve gone back to Charles de Lint (once and for all, to hopefully regularize this in my writing, it’s small “d” “e” space capital “L” “int”, not any of the other various ways I write it), and Newford.  I think I said it before – I was devoted to CdL, devoured everything he wrote, and then … stopped. Funny, I thought I had written more about Jack the Giant-Killer than one paragraph tacked on to the end of the VLFN and Bride of the Rat God post. Okay…

As I mentioned at the time, I reread the omnibus of the Jacky novels that was released as part of the Tor/Terri Windling Fairy Tales series (Tom Canty covers!), and thoroughly enjoyed it. De Lint captured a fairy tale feel, particularly in the scenes in the Giants’ lair. As always, he did a gorgeous job of weaving together Story and Reality – I think he must really enjoy writing characters’ reactions to the strange and weird and wonderful, because a mainstay of his books is the ordinary person who stumbles into Faerie … Lovely stuff, and welcome after some of the schlock I fought my way through early this year.

Now I’m trying to go chronologically through Newford – trying because for some reason I can’t find Dreams Underfoot. But I started out, as first on my list, with Memory and Dream, which was heady and ecsatic and harsh and cutting… Isabelle is a woman who grew up in a hard household, from somewhere finding the courage to up and leave and go to college to study art.  Anyway.  Izzy met up with Kathy, focusing on becoming a writer, and they wound up roommates, and Kathy proved to be instrumental in giving her the courage and confidence which is, so I’m told, part of what friends are for.

And one day Izzy was out sketching, and caught sight of a strange figure out feeding pigeons – a troll-like man , squat and ugly and irresistably draw-able. She was concentrating on completing the sketch when it was taken out of her hands from behind – by the model, who revealed himself to be a) Vincent Rushkin, a world-famous artist who was a large part of Izzy’s inspiration to paint; b) unwilling to have a drawing of himself out in the world (why is never really stated, but it’s a pretty common fairy tale-ish convention, I think); and c) willing to take her on as a student because of the promise he sees in the sketch. He absconds with it, leaving her standing agape with his grubby card in her hand and questions in her head: is he for real? And if he is, can it be that her hero really wants to teach her?

He is, and he does, and she begins going to his studio – and he’s demanding enough that eventually she all but quits school so that she can concentrate on what he’s teaching her. And what he’s teaching her goes far beyond art – there’s an element of faerie in it – and also an element of abuse. It’s never made clear if the abuse is connected with a secret discovered about Rushkin in the end, but I don’t think all of it was – but it’s bad enough that she leaves him and sets up on her own, only to have him follow her in pursuit of the paintings she creates using the special skill he taught her – because he feeds off them.

There’s a strong element of horror in this book, not least because of the very real part of the situation Izzy finds herself in: physical abuse, and the difficulties in getting out of the situation. And there’s an even stronger element of wonder and marvel… What a book.

If only I hadn’t gotten ambushed in the midst of it. Page 216 (hardcover edition), in fact – I still remember that. The exact wording I do not remember, and it’s just as well – I’m slightly happier that way… but it was a paragraph in which Isabelle – Izzy in later years – is musing about how despite what he put her through, continues to put her through, she has to be grateful to have had the mentoring Rushkin gave her, because otherwise she, like so many people she went to school with, might have given up her art and be working in an office.

Ow.

As in stabbed in the heart, not as in stubbed toe.

Which begs the question, I guess: would I wish a mentor like Rushkin on myself if it meant I’d be a working artist right now? Would I take that bargain?

Hell yes. Oh, hell yes.

I originally wrote that as “Provisionally”… and then I thought about it another moment. With what sort of provision would I not take the deal? There isn’t anything I can think of, bar someone even worse than Rushkin. Would I welcome the abuse? Of course not. Would I be able to handle it? I’d hope so – don’t know. Would it be worth going through what Isabelle did – minus, let’s say, the supernatural elements, although … well, that’s another post – to be able to wake up in the morning and make my way to my studio and pick up a brush? Right here, right now, yes. All I do know for absolutely certain is that an abusive mentor is more of a mentor than I have ever had – and I’m working in an office. There’s nothing wrong with working in an office (except the pay) (and, thinking of the last place, sometimes the office). It’s simply that I do have gifts, however deep or shallow, and I would have given very nearly anything – still would – to have been given the chance to work with someone I admired. I would have given – still would – very nearly anything for someone whose opinion I truly respected to – hell, just to indicate that I was worth teaching, never mind teach me. There’s a post – or something – I’ve been writing off and on for months now, all about just this:  how and why I was going to be an artist and yet have not picked up a brush – or even a pencil – in longer than I care to think about; I’m mostly trying to weed out at least a little of the bitterness that runs rampant through it before I do anything more than, shall we say, doodle on it, but the upshot is just this: with a mentor I could have accomplished something. Without … Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

A long time ago, my mother told a story about a girl who wanted to go to a dance.  It was all she could think about, and all she wanted in the world right then: everyone was going, but there was for whatever reason no one to take her. Finally, she said “I’d give anything to go to that dance!”  And before she knew it a handsome young man appeared at her door to take her. She had a wonderful time – until her escort brought her back to her own door and demanded payment for the evening.  She had said she would give *anything* – and he, the devil, was more than happy to render the small service in exchange for her soul.  Since hearing that story (which, I can’t help thinking, would make a great adult illustrated story (DIBS!)), I have avoided saying “I’d give anything” …  But I’m tempted.

It occurs to me that de Lint was rather heartless to lay such a trap for the unwary artist-would’ve-been… Not, of course, that writing should be Sanitized For Your Protection.  The sentence was utterly relevant to the story, and in keeping with Isabelle’s thoughts … but God, it hurt.  I wonder if it ever ocurred to him that that one sentence was a razor blade hidden in the candy bar… And, if not, if he would have changed it if that was pointed out.  Probably not.  But the book should come with a warning label.

Anyway.  Moving on.  I thought for sure that Rushkin could be traced back to a story or legend, but a quick search doesn’t bear that out.  It sounds like the kind of name that could belong to an evil troll or wizard – but it seems like that’s just part of CdL’s gift: the gift of naming.

The Ivory and the Horn was next on the list, a collection of Newford stories with a strong, if not all-pervasive, theme of children in need of help.  My first reaction to short stories is always “don’t like ’em” – I’ve never been able to put myself into a mindset to write ’em (well, look at the length of most of these posts!  Josiah Bartlet (The West Wing): “Never say in one word what you can say in 100.”)  And I always initially say I don’t like reading ’em. I prefer a longer format that can be stretched out in, relaxed into (depending on the book), in which plot and characters have space for development. Which isn’t to say I don’t admire a well-crafted short story – O. Henry is a minor demigod in my pantheon.  The problem, I guess, is finding well-crafted short stories.  There are far too many random assemblages of stories in which there is far too little wheat mixed in with the chaff (Can you say “Chicks in Chainmail”?  I hated more than half of it – but I can’t bear to give up my copy because of just a couple of stories.  At least eluki bes shahar’s story, anyway.) (“Humorous” anthologies are definitely the worst.  Sweetie, just because your mother laughed when she read it doesn’t mean it’s funny – she’s your mother, and by contract had to laugh.)  Too many writers take the lessons of O. Henry to heart and write a story just so they can twist the ending.  But – sing along, do – after some consideration we can state that the first reaction isn’t the truest one.  Given my druthers I’ll take a novel anytime, and I was a little disappointed to be reminded that Ivory and Horn was a collection – but de Lint is one of the ones who can produce gems in this format.  Which shouldn’t be a surprise.

I don’t know where the title for this one comes from.  Memory and Dream was obvious – the two concepts were coupled throughout the book. … Oh, why don’t I just always go straight to Wikipedia: ‘The phrase originated in the Greek language, in which the word for “horn” is similar to that for “fulfill” and the word for “ivory” is similar to that for “deceive”. On the basis of that play on words, true dreams are spoken of as coming through the gates of horn, false dreams as coming through those of ivory.’ So, in a way, instead of Memory and Dream, it’s False Dream and True Dream…

“Waifs and Strays” – which is also the title of a later novel – was lovely (note to self: do not overuse that word in this post).  I’d love to see more of these characters, and was happy about “The Pochade Box” in which they meet up with Jilly Coppercorn. “Mr. Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery” was minorly glorious – what I wouldn’t give. (Well, see diatribe above, but …) The notion of the bookstore or library where all the mythical and lost books can be found is not original, and is always bittersweet – and I’m always a sucker for it.  I love Mabon. For, you know, anyone who might be listening.  “The Forest Is Crying” was a little Twilight Zone, a little more heavy-handed than I’d perhaps prefer, a little obvious (of COURSE she was time traveling – but why would she give him her address and phone number if she knew she was a child at that address? Unless she knew she had to cause him to go see her, which is of course a time travel paradox, and – oh, whatever). “The Wishing Well” was long and hard, and one of those slightly irritating stories in which it’s left ambiguous whether that was (to bring my least favorite book Edward Eager’s into it) Magic or Not? Not my favorite; not at all bad, really, and I quite liked the main character, but not remotely my favorite.  “Dead Man’s Shoes” was good but predictable… “Bird Bones and Wood Ash” was good and unpredictable. And if only. “A Tempest in Her Eyes” was a sort of a Shakespeare fanfic; the jury’s out on this one.  “Saxophone Joe and the Woman in Black” (which originally appeared in Catfantastic III – perfect. And no, I’m not even tempted to cutesily misspell that) was fantastic. “The Bone Woman” was sweet and sad; “Pal o’ Mine” … I can’t remember that one. It’s odd that I can’t remember the later stories of the collection … “Where Desert Spirits Crowd the Night”; “Dream Harder, Dream True”; “Thunder’s Shadow”; “Coyote Stories” – that must be the very long story in which Sophie gets lost in another dream than she’s used to; which was, again, not my favorite, but very good.  Very long, did I mention? And “The Forever Trees”.  All in all, a fine collection (fine in terms of “excellent”).

As I said, I can’t locate Dreams Underfoot; being positive that it was either a paperback or a hardcover would help. It’ll show up. Meantime, I’m three-quarters through Trader. I was a little reluctant to pick it up; I read it, probably when it came out in ’97, and not since, and my impression of it over thirteen years of void was along the lines of an unpleasant taste in my mouth.  If pressed, I would have said there was a character I disliked – but Max Trader, the central focus of the story and the character whose first person narration dominates, is someone I’m very happy to spend time with.  He is one of the only major characters in de Lint’s work so far to have had a relatively happy childhood; the only cloud, and it was a big one, was that his mother died when he was a boy, and his father was rather distant, but they worked it out – and in his teens Max was apprenticed to a prominent luthier.  (I’d rather have an apprenticeship even than a simple mentor.)  He has himself become a prominent luthier, and quite comfortable in his life, though he has few people he’s close to.  And then one morning he wakes up in someone else’s apartment. In someone else’s bed.  In someone else’s body.  He has been switched with one Johnny Devlin, he and we find – and Devlin’s a piece of work: just got fired from his latest job, is about to lose his apartment even though he borrowed $300 from his gullible girlfriend to pay his rent – it’s never said what he did with the money instead, but pay the rent he did not, as Max soon finds himself locked out, thereby losing even the pittance he might have gotten from selling Devlin’s stuff.  And so, hard on the heels of finding himself dispossessed of his own body, he is homeless: just like that.  It isn’t hard to get that way, and very hard to stop being that way; that’s one of the themes of the Newford tales.

An attempt to see and speak to Devlin in his body results in the discovery that Devlin has no idea what’s happened either – but he’s fine with things the way they are.  Max has a comfortable apartment which Devlin will be happy to settle into for now; Max has money which Devlin will be happy to spend.  (To be fair, he does try to pay back that $300 – but that good deed is a bit devalued by the fact that he’s trying to repay it with Max’s money.)  From there for Max it’s a fight – to get himself back together; to not get comfortable where he is, as a strange lassitude sets in now and then; to get through the disbelief of the few people who have reason to know about what’s going on and have difficulty with “I’m NOT Johnny Devlin!”

The book is split among several points of view, all but Max’s written in the third person: there’s Tanya, newly Johnny Devlin’s ex and fragile, and having a whole lot of trouble coping, with this and in general.  There’s Zeffy, her roommate, who’s glad that Tanya’s getting past Devlin, but who wonders how to explain to her that she’s suddenly very intrigued by him.  There’s Nia, a precocious (o dread word – but I like her!) 16-year-old girl who lives with her mother upstairs from Max’s apartment, and who finds it relatively easy to believe that her friend Max has been swapped out of his proper body, because she’s dead sure it’s happened to her mother, too.  And there’s Lisa, her mother, who is herself – but a self that is finding she’s not the person she always thought she was.  It’s all a masterful weaving-together of perspectives to fill in blanks that would have been left if we only heard from Max; nothing is as you expect, and there is always more than meets any one character’s eyes… I’m getting near the end, and after 13 years I don’t remember what that end will be.  I have a hunch of two alternatives, but the way the rest has been woven the real ending may be something I never would have predicted.

Hm.  The list I’m going off for the Newford books seems to be incomplete, as it does not include The Onion Girl, which I believe is Jilly Coppercorn’s story. I’ll have to check further.  The last two books, The Hour Before Dawn (2005) and Muse and Reverie (2009), I do not yet have. I have to find Dreams Underfoot; I think I know where Someplace to Be Flying is; and I can immediately put my hand on Moonlight and Vines (another collection) and Tapping the Dream Tree, which iirc went all cyberspace-y and techno.  Well, I remembered not liking Trader, too, so I will reserve judgment.  And I will also have to try a couple of other books of CdL’s that I originally hated: SvaHa, which I never finished, and The Little People, which I did.  That’s something I remember “knowing” about CdL: I either hated his work or was completely in love with it, no inbetweens.  We’ll have to see if that’s still true.

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2 Responses to Sharon Shinn, Charles de Lint

  1. Emily says:

    What was your chronological reading list for Newford? I kind of want to focus of Jilly’s story and read all the shorts and novels that involve her at least to start because I know the Newford series is so long. If you could help me out at all I would so appreciate it.

  2. stewartry says:

    Hi – I’m afraid I don’t recall if I had a reading list; I generally go by publication date. But I did a little searching, and there’s a wikia page on Jilly: http://newford.wikia.com/wiki/Jilly_Coppercorn

    There’s a list of her appearances, which I’m putting below – hope it helps!

    Dreams Underfoot #1 —
    Lead or Second Lead: “Stone Drum”-2, “Winter Was Hard”-8, “In the House of My Enemy”-14
    Supporting Role: “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair”-1, “Timeskip”-3; “Freewheeling”-4; “The Conjure Man”-11; “The Moon is Drowning While I Sleep”-13, “Paperjack”-18
    Mentioned Only: “Ghosts of Wind and Shadow” (poster)-10, “Tallulah”-19
    Memory and Dream #5
    The Ivory and the Horn #6
    Trader #7
    The Onion Girl #11
    Tapping the Dream Tree #12
    Widdershins #16
    Promises to Keep #21
    The Very Best of Charles de Lint #n/a
    “In Which We Meet Jilly Coppercorn” ~ Short story

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