Ottawa writer Charles de Lint is one of Canada's best-kept literary secrets, one of our most accomplished writers despite an undeserved lack of mainstream recognition. His work defies easy categorization: it's marketed as fantasy, but far removed from clichéd swordplay and sorcery. It's not quite magic realism, and a step above standard urban fantasy—de Lint prefers the term "mythic fiction" to describe his writing, in which supernatural worlds overlap with contemporary society.
If there is any justice, Forests of the Heart, de Lint's latest novel, should vault him from cult favourite to mainstream success.
De Lint's greatest strength as a writer is not his impressive imagination, nor his ability to seamlessly integrate the folklore traditions and beliefs of the Irish, native Canadians, and natives of the Southwestern desert. Rather, de Lint's greatest skill is his human focus—the mythic elements never overshadow his intimate study of character. De Lint is a romantic, a believer in human potential, and his fiction is populated not only with creatures of myth, but with artists and social workers, musicians and runaways, all creating intentional communities based on hope and dreams and mutual belief in the magic of the world around us. To read de Lint is to fall under the spell of a master storyteller, to be reminded of the greatness of life, of the beauty and majesty lurking in shadows and empty doorways.
Rambles Magazine, May 2000:
Forests of the Heart, the latest from Charles de Lint, is a masterwork of dramatic fiction, a contemporary fantasy laced with horror, suspense and magic—and characters so strikingly drawn they'll seem as real as the people you see every day on the street.
De Lint has an indelible command of every character and setting he sets his pen to. His people are alive, his surroundings vivid. Be it a used record store, a lively pub session or some otherworldly elsewhere, you feel like you're there, seeing what de Lint sees and soaking up the scene through all available senses. Within a few pages, new characters sit as comfortably in your mind's eye as old friends, and reoccurring faces from previous tales always earn a flutter of warm recognition. The author also weaves Celtic and Native American mythologies together in a tale which allows them both to clash and complement one another.
Forests of the Heart begins slowly. There's not much action as de Lint spins the background needed for his tale and allows his characters time to grow. But don't assume that means it's a plodding introduction; the tale is enticing from the start. Once the plot begins to unravel and things begin to happen, you'll certainly find yourself riveted to the pages, bitterly resenting anything which yanks you away from reading (including work and sleep).
Forget the fantasy—de Lint makes even mundane moments seem magical simply by drawing the readers' attention to the little details and the hidden mysteries which are all around us, but usually go completely unnoticed. Coupled with the resonant imagery and emotions conjured here, I think you'll find Forests of the Heart to be an irresistable reading experience.
Folk Tales Magazine, May 2000:
This book is riveting, and perhaps the best that Canadian urban fantasist Charles de Lint has written to date.
It holds the unique and seemingly effortless blending of religions, cultures, and traditions that de Lint is known for. It contains the music, magic and strong characters that readers familiar with de Lint's work have come to expect.
Challenging Destiny, June 2000:
For a decade now, we have been fortunate enough to share access to the world of Newford, as found in the novels and stories of Charles de Lint. Unlike some fantasy settings that have been used up in one story or book, Newford has retained its freshness and relevance, supplying many familiar sights and meetings, yet still reinventing itself. De Lint's prose has only grown better and his sense of story surer than in the past. Forests of the Heart is even more of a rambly masterpiece than Someplace to be Flying… This is how a continuing story should be told—people change, times change, and the struggles are different, but there's still a core appeal that lasts.
Publishers Weekly, June 2000:
Irish fairies, Native American shape-changers and Africa's Anansi the Spider all meet up as de Lint weaves a new tale of urban magic, in which a diverse cast of characters learns that all the oldest myths are true. This comes as no surprise to Bettina San Miguel (a Mexican-Indian healer whose power comes from her father, a hawk-spirit), or to Tommy Raven (whose aunts back on the reservation were in regular contact with the spirit world). But Hunter Cole and Ellie Jones, who have never believed in anything supernatural, are shocked to learn that Ellie has enormous magical powers. Conversely, for Miki Greer, the revelation is a horrible confirmation of her Irish father's angry rantings—and a dangerous portent for her brother, Donal, who is involved with the violent "hard men" (displaced Irish spirits, also known as the Gentry and los lobos, looking for a home in America). The "hard men" want to summon a Green Man to fight the native spirits—and they want to use Donal's body to help them do it. Suddenly, the fictional city of Newford is crawling with magic—some hostile, some strangely appealing. And Bettina, Tommy, Hunter and Ellie must stop Donal before it's too late. A leisurely, intriguing expedition into the spirit world, studded with Spanish and Gaelic words and an impressive depth of imagination, de Lint's latest teems with music, danger and a touch of romance.
Booklist, American Library Association
In Ireland, they call them the Gentry—elemental spirits of the land; old, displaced, amoral gods who toy with humans whenever they choose. When the Irish emigrated to the New World, a few Gentry came, too. But there was no place for them; the new land had its own land-spirits, the manitous. Homeless, the Gentry turned hard, and when an ambitious human offers a way to claim a place of their own, their suppressed rage comes to a boil. To that volatile stew, add a New Mexican healer, a sculptor with extraordinary psychic gifts, a young musician and her angry brother, and a vaguely discontented music-store owner and his gen-X staff, and there is plenty to sustain de Lint's reputation as premier urban fantasist. In a horrific, quite filmic conclusion, all is finally set right, but it takes a fight between a corrupted version of the ancient Green Man and the elementals of North America to be accomplished. Sometimes wordy, especially about musical trends, this is, nonetheless, a great yarn.
BookPage, June 2000:
…in de Lint's vision, magic underlies everything in the world, whether it is noticed or not.
De Lint's attitude seems to be summed up by the character Donal Greer, who points out that "there's magic everywhere you turn, if you pay attention to it. Little miracles, like your being in the right place at the right time...."
Forests of the Heart spotlights de Lint's strength in creating strong, sympathetic characters, a realistic, slightly gritty world, and a powerful sense of magic.
Science Fiction Weekly, June 2000:
Forests of the Heart, with its vibrant characters and rich tapestry of mythology and spirituality, succeeds on many levels. The most remarkable thing about this novel for me was de Lint's evocation of place and mood. His mastery of mythic fiction and/or urban fantasy grows with each new work.
The SF Site, June 2000:
As always, de Lint does a fabulous job depicting the lively Newford art scene, making his characters, their haunts and their art and music come fully to life for the reader. Complex and realistic relationships appear throughout the novel against the background of magic which pervades de Lint's landscape.
More than his other novels, Forests of the Heart has a large cast of characters, but they are each unique enough that the reader is in no danger of confusing any of the characters with any other. This also allows de Lint to examine a wide range of relationships.
For fans of de Lint, Forests of the Heart is a welcome addition to the library of his work. For people who haven't read de Lint yet, what are you waiting for?
Locus Magazine, June 2000:
Charles de Lint has plenty of experience when it comes to invoking those shadowy crossroads where modern people must learn to deal with old spirits and magics. In Forests of the Heart, he takes elements (and elementals) of the cold, wet northeast and the hot, dry southwest, adds more than a little Irish, and comes up with a complex human drama, good strong stuff.
It's been about ten years since I first read a book by Charles de Lint, and in all that time, he has never disappointed me. I knew, with that first novel, that this was the way I wanted to write, and it was definitely the stuff I wanted to read.
Like most of his more recent books, Forests of the Heart is mythic fiction, what was not long ago referred to as urban fantasy (a label which, like the label "urban myth," has always been problematic; for one thing it isn't necessarily urban). Mythic fiction is fiction that uses themes, plots, images or other elements from myth and folklore and often (but not always) brings them into a contemporary setting. And not only that, it has a certain feel to it. Reading it, one could almost be sitting around a hearth fire listening to a skilled storyteller passing on tales of ancient wisdom.
As in many of de Lint's novels, there are several main characters whose actions weave through and around one another to come together by the end of the book. Bettina is a curandera, a healer, from the Sonoran desert near the U.S./Mexico border. She was drawn to Newford (de Lint's imaginary city that could be in either Canada or the U.S.) for some reason she has yet to determine. She lives at an artists' colony in a huge house in the city, earning her room and board by modeling for the artists who live there.
Ellie is a sculptor (not one of the residents of the colony) who is given a commission to re-sculpt and then cast in metal an ancient wooden mask of a foliate face, or "green man." Donal and Miki are brother and sister from an Irish family who have had a hard life looking out for each other. Donal is eternally depressed, while Miki tries to make the best of every situation. Hunter is a record store owner (and Miki's employer) who is warned one evening by a group of men (who may not be human) to stay away from Ellie. And Tommy is a Native man and former alcoholic who does what he can to help others in the position he was once in, and who has sixteen aunts with strange names.
This rather varied cast of characters becomes involved in a plan by the Gentry (old world spirits of place without a place to be spirits of, whom Donal refer to as "the hard men") to call forth an ancient land spirit. The Gentry want to use this spirit to conquer the native North American spirits of place and take their home. It would give too much of the plot away, I think, to describe the book further, and figuring out the connections between characters and events is one of the real joys of reading a de Lint novel.
Forests of the Heart takes Celtic folklore (the Gentry or fairy-folk, the green man), and Native American folklore (skinwalkers, manitou) and suggests how they might have blended or clashed with the arrival of Europeans to North America. And to make it even more interesting, de Lint adds in, with the character of Bettina, Spanish-American lore and magic with its own blend of Christian and native elements. It makes for a fascinating read, as these sometimes very different (and often remarkably similar) traditions meet, frequently within a single character.
I must admit that, as a folklorist, anything with folkloric and mythic elements automatically becomes interesting to me. On the other hand, I wouldn't give a book a score of ten out of ten for that reason only. Forests of the Heart is extremely well written, with multi-dimensional characters that fascinate, whether they are protagonists or antagonists. The language varies from quite contemporary, such as one might find in a hard-edged modern book about city life, to the language of folktale and myth. One might think that these two styles would be too different to ever work in the same novel, but that is not the case here. Each style of language fits the particular situation, and at times they blend and become almost indistinguishable, just as the otherworld sometimes bleeds into the "real world" in de Lint's novels.
If you like folklore and mythology but aren't big into fantasy, try some mythic fiction. Charles de Lint's books have been described as fantasy for people who don't read fantasy (of course, many of us fantasy junkies adore his work, too). Forests of the Heart doesn't just take us away to another world, it makes us look at the world around us and see how truly magical it is.
Fantastica Daily, July 2000:
"These new tribes that have come to this land," he would say, "they have no understanding of the desert, the mountains, the wild places and the spirits living in it. They have their politics, but we have the rituals. They have religion, but we live with the spirits. They live in a world without harmony, without mystery.'"
And so we read and write fantasy with a relish in hopes of finding spirituality, harmony, and mystery.
Been waiting for that dream book to come along and sweep you off your fantasy path searching feet? Take a gander at the most recent de mint of Charles de Lint—Forests of the Heart—and you just might find your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Forests of the Heart lends itself to slow, leisurely, drawn out reading consumption. It's one of those pleasures you wish hadn't ended with the last page. De Lint delivers one lovely blend of fantasy, adventure, spirituality, and romance set amidst the background of a contemporary city where the ancient natural landscapes are just a step and breath away in la epoca del mito, myth time.
Forests brings together a diverse cast of characters from an arts community, music scene, Indian reservation, and the supernatural for a duel between good and evil. Perhaps the very best part of Forests of the Heart is Bettina San Miguel "a small, slender woman in her mid-twenties, dark-haired and darker eyed; part Indio, part Mexican, part something older still." Don't overlook the "something older still" part—it's what ultimately imbues this story with a sort of mythic literary endurance beyond the norm.
Bettina is a curandera, healer, who has left her beloved desert for a place in Kellygnow, an arts colony, in Newford. Something has "pulled" the young woman to this world so alien to her home—and it's not the lure of a well-paying job in the city. Bettina San Miguel is a creature who operates on a daily basis on a deeper spiritual level than most folks would ever imagine putting forth the effort to explore. In her is a blend of ancient magical lore passed on by her grandmother, her mother's Christianity, and the heritage of her father's blood.
As de Lint paints the landscapes of Bettina's worlds he creates a vision of mythical eternity which we all might do well to wish into existence. It's an intense world of danger, whimsy, riddles, and magic. It's a world where dogs and wolves play for keeps. "Bettina sighed, knowing that el lobo was now waiting for her to step back into her own world, confident that she wouldn't be able to. And then what? When he decided she was helpless, what would he do? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps he would bargain with her, his help in exchange for something that would seem like poquito, nada, yet it would prove to cost her dearly once he collected." This is a forest where the wolves can walk on two legs quite deftly. And the dogs? Well don't underestimate them, especially the dancing ones that look like gaudy children's toys, los cadejos.
While Bettina is a stranger to Newford, Ellie, Donal, Miki, Hunter, and Tommy are modern day people comfortable on the city streets, in the taverns, and dealing with the homeless. Unwittingly all are drawn into a war initiated by the Gentry, the hard men, Irish spirits with a desire for a home of their own—a home they intend to wrest from the native spirits with the aid of another mythic figure, the Glasduine, a form of the Green Man archetype. This is a war that pits the accordion playing Miki against her brother Donal, a painter. It's a war between spirits that has real consequences in the daily lives of humans—some of which are excruciatingly smelly. Donal's pact with the Gentry pulls his ex-lover Ellie, a sculptor, into the fray, thereby dragging Tommy and Hunter along. While introducing each new character, de Lint sets in place another part of the plot and theme. Each character has their part to play; no creation is a loose end. Gradually the little mystery of each life is unfolds for a purpose. Possibly none is more surprising than that of Bettina's own mystery. Hmm, do a hawk and wolf have what it takes to do more than survive in the desert?
In Forests of the Heart Charles de Lint sculpts a group of deeply individual, vital characters thirsty for love, life, music, and Guinness stout—some sorely concerned with "homes." By the end of the book you may well be searching the trees nearest you for signs of the Green Man. Or every time you hike a hill you might wonder if you'll discover some dancing and singing dogs on the other side. Then again, you could just uncover a hankering for Celtic music and warm beer. Spiders might seem friendlier than ever before. But definitely beware the Musgrave Woods of the world—unless you're shopping for a whole hell of a lot of trouble. Most certainly, rethink the mask that you wear to meet the other masks that you meet on the streets. What's living in the forest of your heart?
The Alien Online (UK), September 2002:
It's been a long time since a British publisher has brought out a new Charles de Lint title. Thankfully the wait has been worth it. Forests of the Heart is, quite simply, one of the most captivating and downright enjoyable modern fantasies I've read in a long time.
The streets of De Lint's fictitious Canadian city of Newford are stalked by a group of strange, violent Irishmen. They hang out in Irish bars to enjoy a good drink and some traditional music. People give them a wide berth, these Irish fellas, at least those that can see them. They look up to no good. And indeed they are up to no good.
They are The Gentry, genii loci—guardian spirits of places—who followed the Irish settlers across the Atlantic to the New World. Lost and dispossessed, they have their sights sets on expanding their territory by any means necessary. Even if that involves bringing the European and American Indian spirit worlds into violent conflict.
Pitched against these malevolent Irish spirits is an eclectic cast of characters including a young Indian woman with magical powers and the usual array of artists and musicians that frequently populate De Lint's novels. Not to mention a record shop owner whose love life has taken a turn for the worse, an Indian man and his mysterious aunts.
To me it's not just a crying shame like de Lint (much like Robert Holdstock) is not a household name in this country. It's a scandal. He packs more imagination into one novel than some authors pack into an entire trilogy of tired Tolkien retreads. Forests of the Heart is a hugely entertaining tale; fantasy at heart, but with elements of horror and a fair sprinkling of humour, all conveyed in De Lint's beautifully evocative prose. Okay, so his characters aren't the kind of people you or I are likely to mix with regularly, not unless your circle of friends happens to comprise mainly of gifted musicians or artists. But that doesn't matter. In De Lint's hands they quickly seem as real as your best mates and I for one was sorry to part company with them.
If you've read and enjoyed De Lint's earlier work, you won't be disappointed with this one. If you haven't read any of his stuff, please give it a try. I'll readily admit I'm a big fan of his. A couple of his novels haven't quite worked for me but this is one I genuinely couldn't put down. Unmissable.
Gallery Magazine, Jan. 2001:
This book is not what it appears to be. Mythology, be it tribal, familial, or social, follows us. We only have different names for it according to our heritages or knowledge. In Forests of the Heart, de Lint traces the lines from the old country to transient urban lives as several people and cultures converge around a group of spirits looking for a willing human sacrifice. The spirits—elegant, feral men known as the Gentry, "hard men," or los Lobos—are seen in packs, wandering the streets, squatting, drinking, and watching houses at the edge of the forest waiting to regain entrance into this world.
In Forests of The Heart, de Lint's protagonists are everyday people—guys one would want to have a pint with or women you'd want to take to dinner. All their lives changes and the world they know is shown to be turned inside out as the hard men appear in their lives, recognized as different pieces of the protagonists' culture and histories. Some can see the "hard men" for what they are, some have to be convinced there is another world, another measure of time in this life. One of them, thinking he can take advantage of the "hard men," willing accepts the offer of power and vengeance that the "hard men" offer.
Between the detailed Mexican and Celtic folklore and the asides regarding de Lint's great taste in music (which he passes on to his protagonists), the author gracefully weaves the plot and the characters as a swift thriller that takes into account mythology, folklore, and urban legend until any dividing lines are blurred so finely.
Charles de Lint's work is a great relief in a climate where political correctness promotes varied people be equally separated into inflexible categories. His writing poses an idea of how various peoples are connected, how the discrepancies between the cultures has grown over thousands of years, and how there is something palpable most of us never consider binding humans together.
Charles de Lint is a rare writer in that he's an optimist who links modern fantasy to folktales, religion, and the unwritten or forgotten histories of humanity, and believes humans are much more alike, if only in the possibility that there's so much we don't know about the world.