Charles de Lint’s urban fantasies, including Moonheart, Greenmantle and Yarrow, have earned him a devoted following and critical acclaim as a master of contemporary mythic fiction. At the heart of his work is the ongoing Newford series. Familiar to De Lint’s readers as the setting of the novels Memory and Dream, Someplace to be Flying and The Onion Girl, among others, Newford is the quintessential North American city, tough and streetwise on the surface and rich with hidden magic for those who can see. The fictional city of Newford could be any contemporary North American city… except that magic lurks in its music, in its art and in the shadows of its grittiest streets, where mythical beings walk in disguise. Newford is populated by a regular cast of characters not too different from you or I, each looking for a bit of magic to shape their lives and transform their fates. There is Jilly Coppercorn, painting wonders in the rough city streets; Geordie Riddell, playing the fiddle while he dreams of ghosts; Angel gathering the waifs, strays, poor and lost to her homeless shelter; Holly Rue and her antique book store complete with hobs and brownies and a dozen others. Their lives intertwine with the fey beings with whom they share Newford – gemmins who live in abandoned cars, mermaids who swim in the grey harbour waters; desert spirits who crowd the night; crow girls; wolf men; vengeful ghosts and many more. I challenge anyone who has read any of the Newford books or short stories not to fall under De Lint’s unique spell.
Along with writers like Terri Windling and John Crowley, Charles de Lint popularized the genres of urban fantasy and mythic fiction, which fall somewhere between classical fantasy literature and mainstream fiction with a magical realist twist. His distinctive style of fantasy draws upon mainly North American and European folklore, occasionally incorporating elements of world mythology. The Newford series is a showcase for De Lint’s particular literary talents, being full of stark realism and fond hope, mean streets and boulevards of broken dreams, the power of love and longing, of wishes and desires and, as another talented urban fantasist (James P Blaylock) once put it ‘A magic that is nowhere near so far removed as Middle Earth’. Although I love De Lint’s early work (especially Moonheart, which remains one of my favourite reads), I feel that it is in the Newford series that he finally finds his own voice. Whilst in these books his writing remains as good as ever and his folkloric scholarship remains outstanding, the Newford series is distinctive because it is also replete with the brutal realities of modern urban life. The Onion Girl, to take one example, is an often harrowing study of powerful themes like loneliness, child abuse, rehabilitation and nature versus nurture. In De Lint’s capable hands, urban fantasy becomes something other than escapism – it becomes contemporary folk tale, the stuff of modern myth.
All of the above is not to say that the Newford books and De Lint’s writing in general is completely without fault. The later novels and short stories suffer from a sometimes preaching tone which may put off some readers. Also, the stories become increasingly self-referential and dependent on each other, which no doubt appeals to die-hard De Lint fans but may leave newcomers feeling somewhat excluded. As a long time De Lint reader I for one appreciate the links between the many novels and short stories, as well as the ‘meta-plot’ of the events in the continuing lives of the regular characters. Even more of a thrill are the tantalising glimpses, in books such as The Blue Girl, of links between the Newford series and De Lint’s earlier, highly successful Tamson House series, which is set in the very real Canadian city of Ottawa. If Newford sounds like a place that you might like to visit then I’d highly recommend starting with the very first Newford novel, Memory and Dream, followed by the short story series Dreams Underfoot (incidentally, in my opinion the short stories are every bit as enjoyable as the longer ones). Once you sample De Lint’s work, you might also like to try some of the other urban fantasies/mythic fiction out there by authors such as the aforementioned Blaylock, Crowley and Windling as well as Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and its sequels, Delia Sherman’s Changeling stories, Mercedes Lackey’s Bedlam’s Bard series, Freda Warrington’s Aetherial Tales, Jan Siegel’s Fern Capel trilogy and, perhaps best of all, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago sequence.