Charles de Lint,
Forests of the Heart
(Tor, 2000)

When immigrants from Celtic lands flocked to the New World, they brought along with them some uninvited, unseen guests.

In Ireland and surrounding nations, nature spirits -- also called the Gentry or Fair Folk -- once flourished. But those who traveled west with the great migration to the United States and Canada found this land already inhabited by native spirits. And so, without a home, the Gentry lurked, and brooded.

Now, they have a plan to wake an older, stronger spirit who will clear this land of its previous inhabitants and make it their own. All they need is a man with the proper rage against the world, and a mask which must be remade....

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.

For instance, there's Bettina, who was raised with magic in the southwestern desert and accepts it as a real part of life. Despite her extraordinary sight and knowledge, she doesn't know the meaning or purpose behind los lobos, the mysterious men in black who congregate by her new home in the foothills near Newford, but still, she understands that they are from someplace beyond the normal mortal plane. One of them seems less ominous than the rest, but she isn't sure she can trust him.

Ellie is a real-life angel, bringing comfort and hope to Newford's homeless. She's an artist with an active conscience but a firm disbelief in things mystical -- a disbelief which circumstances around her may shake. Tommy is her driving partner, a Native who fled the reservation but managed to reconnect himself with the world before being lost to despair. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in de Lint's well-peopled Newford. There's Hunter, a lonely music store owner; Miki, Hunter's Irish waif assistant; Donal, Miki's morose brother; and Nuala, the silent housekeeper with many secrets. Jilly Coppercorn, de Lint's perennial favorite supporting character, loiters in the background without ever becoming an active part of the story.

The "hard men," the story's wandering Irish spirits who've grown bitter and spiteful for want of a home, are among the most menacing antagonists de Lint has written yet.

There's also Kellygnow, an artists' and writers' commune with its odd assortment of rooms and tenants, towers and nooks. The rambling old house may well be Newford's answer to Tamson House, one of de Lint's most beloved settings left behind in Ottawa, where he once based many of his books.

All this and more is involved when certain forces seek to waken the Green Man, a primal force which is neither good nor evil, but is defined by the human spirit which drives it. Against the backdrop of a massive ice storm which brings Newford to its knees, old and new magics contend for the future of humanity.

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.

[ by Tom Knapp ]