I’m Canadian and a lover of fantasy but have somehow managed not to read any books by Charles de Lint, ever. I’m not sure if this represents great skill or just gobsmacking stupidity on my part. It’s probably some mixture of the two. My roommate lent me Moonheart, promising I would love it in tones that made me hope I would, lest awkward differences of critical opinion ensue. Fortunately, I do love this book. De Lint does an amazing job combining Celtic mythology and contemporary Canada to create a compelling urban fantasy.
Moonheart starts off slow. De Lint takes his time introducing the large cast of characters. We meet Sara Kendell and her uncle, Jamie Tamson (aka Tams). They are rich—and not just wealthy, but super-rich. (I assume that de Lint did this in order to justify why Jamie has such an awesome house, but it’s fun to watch him twist himself into knots justifying how Jamie and Sara can be such down-to-earth people despite their insane wealth.) We meet Kieran Foy and his mentor in all-things-magery, Tom Hengwr. We meet the honourable but hard Inspector Tucker, an RCMP officer.
Did I mention it’s set in Canada? Ottawa, to be precise. I’ve never actually been (I hear it’s nice, though), so de Lint’s descriptions of the streets and neighbourhoods didn’t jog any fond memories as I’m sure they would for some people. Nevertheless, there’s just something so … Canadian … about the way he describes our capital city. It’s nice to see it featured in so good a novel. And it’s nice to see the RCMP grappling with the possibilities of paranormal threats instead of leaving it to the FBI and the CIA.
Also, I wasn’t aware of how old the book was until the conspicuous lack of references to cell phones, the Internet, and the paucity of computers in general drove me to look at the copyright page: 1984! Moonheart holds up really well, though, because de Lint has crafted a story that’s perfect for its time. Although it is possible to write great urban fantasy set in a twenty-first century city, the motifs and tropes that one embraces will be different. I don’t think it would alter de Lint’s grand theme about the inevitable changes in human society, but the way he would deal with those changes would be different, and even perhaps more obvious. By dint of its time, Moonheart has more breathing room: the Cold War is over, but the frenetic digital era has yet to take off.
This is reflected in the pacing of the novel. As I mentioned above, it takes a while for Moonheart’s conflict to get going. This works, though, because de Lint’s writing is good enough to keep the reader interested. There are few outright boring scenes in this book; no matter which group of characters we’re with, something interesting is happening. Though there is a fair amount of dialogue, de Lint has the ability to seamlessly scatter exposition and description within a conversation. All in all, reading Moonheart is a pleasant and effortless experience that belies the complexity of what’s actually going on.
I mean, let’s step back for a moment: the “mundane” characters (for wont of a better term) in this novel stumble into the middle of a 1500-year-old feud between a Celtic bard (who is ostensibly dead) and a druid (who is now just a crabby old man, because that is the fate of all of us). It is actually more complicated than this, for reasons I can’t go into because SPOILERS. Along the way, the characters learn that magic is a) very real and b) not actually all that fun. In this universe, magic—at least for humans and certain types of creatures who seem to be related to or have human ancestors—is all about centering oneself and having inner calm. And then you can blast people with fire.
Kieran and Sara meet the aforementioned bard, Taleisin, and Sara falls in love. She engages in some time-travelling shenanigans that probably make things worse, before becoming relevant again just in time to participate in the climax of the novel. If I have to lob any criticism vaguely in Moonheart’s direction, it’s Sara’s role and development. Don’t get the wrong idea: like all of the main characters, Sara changes throughout this novel, and de Lint spends a good amount of time depicting it. Compared to the other characters, however, she seems to have the least amount of page-time where she actually does something—there is a lot of waiting and complaining going on. This is a shame, particularly since she’s the only major female character in the book, and her role is connected to the title.
Meanwhile, Jamie, Tucker, and a biker named Blue find themselves trapped in Tamson House with an assortment of other characters of various loyalties. Not only is the house under siege by mysterious, wolverine-like shadow creatures, but it has hopped its interior into an alternative dimension. (Yes, it’s the kind of magical, semi-sentient house that every fantasy book needs and most fantasy readers would want. It is awesome.) They have to fend off this assault, figure out how the house got into this dimension and how to get back, and deal with internal strife. Their only source of information is a comatose, healing Tom Hengwr, who certainly knows more than even he is able to say. As all this happens, an external enemy lies in wait, looking for a way into the house to kill Tom and everyone inside (but especially Tom).
In this way, Moonheart is both an intense action novel and a mystery as well. The characters (and to some extent the reader) have to piece together how these various, almost disparate myths and stories relate to what actually happened so many centuries ago. I know almost nothing about Celtic mythology, so I’m can’t speak to how accurately or well de Lint represents it here. But I think he uses it to good effect. He embraces the convention in fantasy that the old gods and old magic have faded in proportion to humanity’s belief in them fading; elves and manitou and related spirits have withdrawn from our world into the Otherworlds as humanity turns to science and technology and away from nature and mythology. Unlike some novels, though, Moonheart does not view this as depressing; it just is, and there is no point in complaining.
De Lint hints that the time of even wizards is drawing to a close, that soon magic in general will be gone from our world. He doesn’t explore this as fully as he might; Moonheart ends with the surviving characters changed irrecovably, but the extent of how those changes affect what they do with the rest of their lives is an open question. I definitely get the sense, however, a major point de Lint makes here is how the battles one fights always change one, and those changes are usually unforeseen. None of the major characters is the same by the end of the book. Some of them have undergone major transformations, while others have merely (merely) had their world-views altered. Regardless, Moonheart emphasizes how life is never static; by definition, experiences—and particularly conflict—force us to make choices about who we will be. Will we fight with honour? Will we let pride be our undoing? Will we embrace what we see or deny that it is happening?
So, in addition to its action aspects, Moonheart is an excellent fantasy novel. De Lint balances mythology and magic with the novel’s modern-day setting. It’s been a long time since I have read such a nice, original urban fantasy story. It reminds me a little of Faerie Tale, but it’s never quite as dark. The two books are similar in that both are set strongly in this world but also have links to other, more fey worlds, and the characters’ discovery of the reality of magic and magical creatures gets them into deep trouble.
If you like fantasy, read Moonheart. It’s as simple as that. I can’t guarantee you’ll like the characters, the plot, or the story quite as much as me. But de Lint’s skill as a writer, combined with this story, are more than enough to make me sing this novel’s praises.