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Medicine Road
Charles de Lint
Subterranean Press, 206 pages

Medicine Road
Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint has been writing urban fantasy, mixing elements of Native American and Celtic folklore, for a long time. Many of his earlier stories, such as Moonheart, Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon (both later republished together as Jack of Kinrowan), Ascian in Rose, Westlin Wind and Ghostwood (later collected and republished as the single volume Spiritwalk) explored this, using the city of Ottawa as a backdrop. The fictional city of Newford became the stage for novellas such as "Ghosts of Wind and Shadows", "Our Lady of the Harbour", "The Wishing Well", The Dreaming Place; short story collections such as Dreams Underfoot and The Ivory and the Horn; and novels such as Memory and Dream, Trader, and Someplace to be Flying.

Charles de Lint Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Mulengro
SF Site Review: A Handful of Coppers
SF Site Review: The Onion Girl
SF Site Review: Forests of the Heart
SF Site Reading List: Charles de Lint
SF Site Review: Jack of Kinrowan
SF Site Review: Moonlight and Vines, A Newford Collection
SF Site Review: Someplace to be Flying
Information about the Tamson House Mailing List
One Tamson House
Newford Chronicles

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Michael M Jones

Turning from the urban jungle of the mythical North American city of Newford, to the beautiful desert of the American Southwest, Charles de Lint's latest book mixes the shapeshifting animal spirits that so often feature in his work, with two of the redheaded Dillard sisters, most recently seen in de Lint and Charles Vess' previous collaboration, Seven Wild Sisters.

This time, it's the older twins, Bess and Laurel, a talented musical duo who've struck off on their own to see the world and play their music in bars, roadhouses, house concerts, and anywhere else willing to host their particular flavor of bluegrass. Touched years ago by a brief encounter with the supernatural, Bess would just as soon forget all about the unseen world of magic and spirits, while Laurel is still looking for well... something. What neither of them expects is that their path will bring them into contact with some very unusual people.

Jim Changing Dog and Alice Corn Hair have been linked for a hundred years by the mystical machinations of Corina, a coyote spirit determined to teach them a lesson. Jim, a red dog spirit, and Alice, a jackalope, were granted the ability to switch between their real forms and human forms, but if, after a hundred years they both hadn't found love, they'd lose that gift forever. The hundred years is almost up, and while Alice has found her true love, Jim is still happy with one-night stands. With the deadline looming, Jim is out to find himself a true love so he can continue to enjoy his "five-finger" form, and Alice is willing to give him a hand. What neither of them realizes is that Ramona, a rattlesnake woman with an axe to grind against Corina for past interferences, plans to sabotage their efforts and throw the whole plan into chaos.

Will Jim and Laurel find happiness together, once the truth about Jim's motives is revealed? Will Alice and her human husband live happily ever after, or will they be split when Alice is forced to revert to her natural form? Will Ramona learn a lesson? Will Corina stop meddling?

With two mortal musicians, a red dog, a coyote, a rattlesnake, a jackalope, and assorted minor players to keep track of, Medicine Road often comes close to confusion, the plot resembling a supernatural Southwestern soap opera. One complaint I've heard several times about de Lint's recent work is that it seems like there is no regular humans left in his world. By now, just about everyone is either had an experience with the supernatural world, or has a touch of the supernatural within them. And I agree with that assessment, especially as it applies to this book. When the animal-spirits in human form meet up with two seemingly random people who just happen to have had experiences of their own, it can either be explained as coincidence, or the taint of the spirit world calling like to like. But is this a bad thing? I'm not sure. I absolutely love de Lint's work, his words, and his world, but it is become somewhat formulaic after so many books and short stories.

Don't get me wrong. Medicine Road is beautiful and magical. It hits all of the strengths that make de Lint one of the best fantasy writers out there today. He's one of the only writers I know of who can pull off telling a story from multiple character viewpoints, switch from first person to third person -- and -- alternate present tense and past tense, and make it sound right. The sheer versatility of his style is a miracle unto itself. Combine that with the "feel-good" atmosphere his books often put forth, where love and magic are often enough to win out over hopelessness, loneliness, and despair, and it's the sort of read that leaves you with a warm glow by the end. While very few of his stories are "they lived happily ever after" (usually because he has a habit of using the same characters over and over, providing a strong sense of continuity through his milieu), they satisfy for the moment.

One thing that did catch me, hitting the narrative like a brick wall, was the brief mention of a faerie festival featuring the world of Brian Froud and Terri Windling. Froud, of course, is the artist best known for his gorgeous yet utterly alien faerie artwork, and the designs for the movies Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Terri Windling is an artist, author, and editor who has worked with de Lint and Vess in the past. While normally, I wouldn't complain about seeing them get their proper attention, the way in which it's done seems somewhat random, contributing rather little to the overall plot. However, this is the part where I point you, the reader, towards and to learn more about these worthies and their work.

Getting back to the book at hand, though, I have to admit one last gripe. At $35US for the regular edition, and $60US for the signed leatherbound edition, the price is a little steep. I don't know if it's available through any other source than the publishers, Subterranean Press. I think it's worth it, to have a book written by Charles de Lint, featuring the gorgeous artwork of Charles Vess, but it's a shame it's not closer in price to that of regular hardcovers.

I can't say that this is the best thing de Lint's ever done, nor is it my favorite. However, it's a strong, thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly magical story that takes advantage of native myths and lore to create something entirely new, yet quietly familiar. If we see any of these characters again, I won't complain. Medicine Road's definitely worth picking up if you're a fan, and if you're not a fan, might I suggest one of de Lint's short story collections, such as Dreams Underfoot, The Ivory and the Horn, Tapping the Dream Tree, or Waifs and Strays, as a way to familiarize yourself with his work before leaping into the deep end. For those planning to pick up this book, I suggest acting quickly. It is supposed to be available at the end of April, and the cheaper versions of de Lint's Subterranean releases tend to sell out.

Copyright © 2004 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.

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