Once upon a time, at the beginning of the world, there were only the animal people....
The hardcover edition of Someplace to Be Flying was published by Tor Books in February 1998. Macmillan published the U.K. hardcover edition in March of the same year. Mass market editions became available in March 1999 from Tor Books in North America and Pan Books in the United Kingdom.
Someplace to Be Flying is set in Newford and environs, and is steeped in corvid (crow family) mythology—a Trickster tale involving Raven and Coyote, and a flock of punky "crow girls" on modern city streets, detailing the effect of their presence on a group of ordinary people. While some of the characters previously introduced in the short stories "Heartfires," "Crow Girls" and "Twa Corbies" make return appearances, most of the cast is new.
From Booklist, January 1998|
American Library Association:
In many hands, the urban fantasy plot involving strange beings just around the corner fails dismally. It does not in the hands of the reliable, the inimitable de Lint. Photojournalist Lily hears rumors of "animal people" living in the slums and goes in search of the truth. That truth is an underground community of the First People (i.e., American Indians)—the trickster, the storyteller, and others. None of them are absolutely human any more (were they ever?), and although some have specific goals, others are just into mischief for the fun of it. Lily is quickly drawn into their various quests, with results as page-turning and intelligent as usual for de Lint, who clearly has no equal as an urban fantasist and very few equals among fantasists as a folklorist. First-rate.
From Library Journal, January 1998:
A cab driver and a freelance photographer come together in the town of Newford to explore the existence of the mythical "animal people" and discover the hidden world that lurks just crossover fantasy that combines elements of magical realism with multicultural myths to illuminate the lives of his characters—the misfits and orphans of the modern world. De Lint's elegant prose and effective storytelling continue to transform the mundane into the magical at every turn. Highly recommended.
From Kirkus Reviews, December 1997:
[Plot summary, then]
All this is merely a hint of the delightful complexities to be found here: an enthralling blend of old European and Native American mythology, seamlessly worked into a modern setting and situation. De Lint's best so far.
From Locus, January 1998:
Charles de Lint has developed a strong and loyal readership for his urban fantasy novels, delivering a reliable cocktail of likeable characters, myth, folklore, and music set against a counter-culture background of one sort or another. Someplace to be Flying, set in the fictional city of Newford, is no exception.
The book opens in the Newford slums when Hank, a jazz-loving cab driver, stops to save a woman being violently assaulted in a dark side-street. When her assailant shoots him as he gets out of his cab, the scene changes. In a flurry of darkness and the sound of beating wings, two mysterious young women appear out of nowhere, killing the man and healing Hank's wound. It is a moment that will change the world for Hank and Lily, the woman he has stopped to save, forever. Slowly they are introduced to a world of magic which has always existed around them, unseen and unknown, one peopled by figures of myth and legend, where trickster Coyote and Raven are real, and where it is possible for a young woman to wish her twin sister out of existence.
No brief summary, however, will adequately describe this complicated novel. De Lint introduces his reader to a large, diverse cast of characters plus an entire mythological system he explains only incidentally, and moves those characters across a number of different stages through a number of different times. It's a story that begins with the birth of daughters to a country woman who has slept with one of the Corbae—sort of animal people who have been around since the creation of the world—and how she and her daughters are treated. It is also the story of how Raven loses the cauldron he used to create the world, and how it must be recovered. And it is the story of how a ragtag group of people living in a violent and rundown world create a community amongst themselves.
Charles de Lint's greatest strength, and also sometimes his greatest weakness, is his obvious love for his characters, and empathy for people generally. The characters in Someplace to be Flying, especially the delightful Crow Girls, are never less than engaging. Sometimes, though, it's hard not to feel that Newford is a little too clean, and people there are much too good. But then, he is showing us people living up to their potential, rather than down to it. And that is what makes de Lint's books rewarding.
From The Washington Post, March 1998:
Though de Lint may be a master of contemporary fantasy, he also brings to life the human frailties of his characters and the spirit with which they cling together… The reader does not have to be strictly a fan of either thrillers or fantasy to thoroughly enjoy this delightful tale.
From The Globe and Mail, February 1998:
De Lint is as engaging a stylist as Stephen King, but considerably more inventive and ambitious anyone who thinks it is easy to blend Celtic and Native American myths into a coherent structure is invited to try and here he has produced a book that should appeal even to those who, like this reviewer, do not generally care a lot for fantasy.
From The Edmonton Journal, May 1998:
…may be his most complex and profound fantasy yet. De Lint is a romantic; he believes in the great things, faith, hope and charity (especially if love is included in the last), but he also believes in the power of magic or at least the magic of fiction to open our eyes to a larger world. And he knows that a good story is worth a thousand sermons. Someplace to Be Flying is good old-fashioned storytelling at its best.
From The Varsity, Toronto, April 1998:
Charles de Lint once again delivers what his fans have come to expect of him: a tale of high adventure that takes place on the boundary between the world that we know and the faery world that we wish we knew. If ever we achieve the ability to create a new world for us to live in, I would like to nominate Charles de Lint as god's new architect. He would create a world for us where there is a clear line between right and wrong, entertainment icons are not worshipped as gods and a sense of kinship is the ultimate prize.
From The Sudbury Star, March 1998:
Charles de Lint is the master of urban fantasy novels…de Lint has refined the boundaries of his domain…he has excelled at blending the world of fairies and other mythological beings with the world of cities and people…it is a move that represents a creative step forward in fantasy fiction. It opens a number of doors for authors and readers in terms of plots and in presenting interesting characters. The novel once again demonstrates de Lint's adeptness in the genre and his strength as a storyteller.
From The Internet Writing Journal, February 1998:
…another stunning tale of magic, love and the search for meaning in our modern-day existence. De Lint's greatest gift is his ability to weave ancient myths into the fabric of contemporary urban life, resulting in a compelling, complex story.
From The SF Site, March 1998:
Charles de Lint is one of those rare authors whose work is envied by writers and book editors as much as by his fans…if you don't find something in the plot to keep you turning pages ravenously (and I'm sure you will), then the colourful characters…will charm you thoroughly.
From The Orphic Chronicle, Summer 1998:
Charles de Lint…has a way of weaving complex characters and plots together with just the right amount of strange coincidence. He stretches the reader's mind with intelligent fiction no character is left flat and no storyline goes unexplored.
Charles de Lint's latest novel, Someplace to be Flying, is, simply put, a masterpiece. De Lint has been writing his particular brand of urban fantasy for many years, and quite a number of his books have captured my affection (Greenmantle or Jack of Kinrowan for example, or the short stories in The Ivory and the Horn). But Someplace to be Flying is different, qualitatively so, with no insult meant to his earlier writing, and some of the very attributes that flaw this novel are the ones that make it so unique. The main flaw is the patience needed for the first quarter of the book, where de Lint is assembling his wide-ranging cast. Anything after the beginning of Part 4 is gutsy, lucid, and incredibly authentic—and well worth the 146 page prelude.
Someplace to be Flying is set in de Lint's fictional city of Newford, somewhat of a cross between Ottawa and Toronto as far as I can tell. The book opens with a violent encounter—Hank stops to help a woman, Lily, late at night, and gets shot and wounded by the assailant. The assailant in turn is knifed by one of a pair of punky girls, who heal Hank's wound and disappear into the night. Are they the crow girls of the stories of Hank and Lily's mutual friend, Jack? Is there any truth to the story about animal people that Lily is pursuing? De Lint keeps adding more characters and more storylines, until the plot takes on an almost baroque complexity. Rory is friends with Lily and lives in the Rookery with Annie, and they help a girl new to the city, Kerry, move in and get settled. But what do Ray and Cody have to do with Kerry? And what does Katy have to do with Jack? or Kerry? And who the heck is Margaret? Each has a role in the unfolding of the narrative, and they all know each other and work inside or against this long shared history. As I said, the novel takes over 150 pages to gel, but once that point is reached, there's no looking back.
The characters are especially well-written. Both Hank and Lily are credible humans, and their story is a fitting way to start the book. Their relationship is also believable, and we get just the right amount of romance (that is, not very much). Most of the other characters are something other than human, either the actual archetypical animals that existed at the beginning of the world or with some animal blood—de Lint mentions a few times that he is using Kickaha mythology. I liked de Lint's characterization of these animal people. For example, Nettie is talking about this old blood and says: "'What's it good for?' I said. 'It's not good or bad, it just is'" (90). But there is a definite division between the animal people who are simply different from us humans and those animal people (the cuckoos mainly) who are bad. Jack has a few things to say about the cuckoos: "'If they were human, you'd call them sociopaths. Got voices sweet as honey and some of them are so pretty you'd think you were looking on a piece of heaven if you came upon one, but they've got no sense of right or wrong'" (104). The cuckoos make satisfying villains, and thankfully there are no other pure evil beings. Someplace to be Flying works long and hard to create a spectrum of characters, some good, some evil, some more ambiguous (like Cody or even Raven), a welcome change from the deep good/evil dichotomy that can sometimes make fantasy boring and irrelevant. Here, a person makes their own choices, and because of that the complex ending is at once strictly fantastical and entirely believable.
De Lint uses some stylistic and structural innovations, all of which succeed admirably and add a great deal to the book. Donna is a friend of both Lily and Rory, but she is never onstage, so to speak. She has moved to the East Coast, and keeps in touch through email. De Lint reproduces a few of these emails for us, and they are all sharply observed and true to how people actually write email. We also get things like an admittance form for a mental institution (201), a Japanese ideograph, and epigrams for each of the eight chapters (which are sometimes cheesy, unfortunately). I also liked how de Lint uses changes in viewpoint. Most of Someplace to be Flying is written in omniscient third-person, which switches to focus on different characters in clearly demarcated sections. But all of the even-numbered chapters (which are much shorter than the odd) are in first-person, and essentially form the portion of the novel which push it past excellence into masterpiece territory. Chapter 4 is filled with virtuoso writing and heartwrenching detail, and Chapter 6, which I came to with much higher expectations, soars only higher. The final chapter is again different, and again matched my escalated expectations. Few books have ever concluded in such a satisfying way.
The slow-going start hardly counts against Someplace to be Flying when the larger picture is considered. But I would like to mention one highly annoying flaw, in an incident near the two-thirds mark in the book. Lily is in the library and meets a man named Christy Riddell, who is clearly modelled after de Lint himself, and who gives Lily insufferably wise words about what is going on. This kind of authorial intrusion never works, and it can range from the silly (Clarke in 3001 having a character talk about some writer's saying about magic and highly advanced technology) to the intensely bothersome (Tolstoy's moral surrogate, Levin, in Anna Karenina). Christy even has the gall to point out something that has been obvious to the reader long ago: "'And when you put the words up against each other—cuckoo, Couteau—there's a similar resonance'" (250). I have argued that this book is a masterpiece, but there's no excuse for the character of Christy Riddell, which should have been excised.
Someplace to be Flying is a book not to be missed. Its underlying themes are portrayed with assurance and excellence in every category. De Lint plays with style and structure to the great benefit of the book, and I was hoping that he would treat his story with more postmodern flourishes. But that was not to be, and the balance that de Lint maintains is probably impressive enough.
We are our stories. But more that, our stories are inextricably intertwined, knotted, woven and spliced into the stories of those around us and then into a larger story. This is what de Lint reminds us in Someplace to be Flying, one of his richest and most complex novels.
Hank Walker meets Lily Carson under less than auspicious circumstances-he jumps out of his gypsy cab when he sees someone attacking her, only to be seriously injured himself. They are rescued by what appears to be two raggedy teen-aged girls, who seem literally to drop out of nowhere. The girls dispatch the attacker, heal Hank's and Lily's injuries, and vanish.
Lily, a photojournalist, realizes that the girls must be two of the "animal people" she had been seeking. Hank is not surprised-he has heard his friend Jack Daw tell stories about the animal people for years. These are the First People, the ones who have been around since the beginning of the world and who are both people and animals. Some are corbae-crows, ravens, magpies and jays-while others are canidae-foxes, coyotes and so on. There are other families, but the corbae and the canidae are the main groups being considered here. There is another group important to the story-the Cuckoo people who are evil and amoral and who hate everyone else, but particularly the corbae.
Lily has also heard Jack's stories, but this is not the only connection she and Hank will share. In no time at all, they and their friends are caught up in a struggle among the First People who are starting to pull together and act out their stories. Raven has lost his cauldron, and both Coyote (Cody) and the Cuckoos (represented as the Couteau family) are looking for it. Cody wants to return the world to the way it was at the beginning time, while the Couteaus seek revenge against the corbae, particularly the powerful ones such as Raven, the Crow Girls and Jack Daw.
The novel reads like a tapestry of words with the different stories serving as the threads that weave together to produce the whole pattern. The narrative is rich and thoughtful, transforming the reader as it quietly engages him or her. De Lint employs folkloric elements while at the same time making them part of Newford's own lore. The characters are people anyone would want to know-or, as in the case of the Cuckoo people, avoid. De Lint has a flair for delineating the characters with just the right amount of detail, creating a vivid image in the reader's mind while leaving room for the imagination to take over.
It can't be denied that Maida and Zia, the irrepressible Crow Girls, are particularly appealing and original characters. When they have to, they can be serious-deadly serious-but for the most part, they are playful and inquisitive, fond of pretty shiny things, sugar and playing tricks on people. In short, they're just plain fun, and they'll make you long for sleek black wings of your own. Veryvery much so.
One of the most important elements of this novel is the thread of hope that runs through the story. De Lint pulls no punches-characters face the consequences of their actions, pain and sacrifice-but he never relinquishes that hold on hope.
This is a powerful story about the power of story, intensely moving and gripping. It is nearly impossible to read it without being changed in some subtle and important way, with a deeper inner recognition of our own stories and where they connect to each other.