Charles de Lint,
A Handful of Coppers
(Subterranean, 2003)

It's reassuring, I think, to be occasionally reminded that even the most gifted of people didn't spring from the womb with all their abilities intact. Even those people deserving high praise today, be they musicians, writers, artists or whatever form of creative mind they've become, had to work from the bottom, earning their skills through trial and error.

So it was with Charles de Lint, certainly one of my favorite writers and a man whose inventive stories have earned him devoted followers around the world. He, too, had to sift through the grist of his imagination and hone his skills as a wordsmith before earning the accolades he deserves today. A glimpse of his journeyman days as a writer is available in a new limited-edition collection from Subterranean Press. A Handful of Coppers collects various heroic tales from de Lint's early years of writing, primarily from the late 1970s and '80s, when his focus was still largely on high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery stuff that quickly fell by the wayside as he developed a more contemporary style.

The first sequence of stories focuses on a sword-wielding warrior babe of the sort well-known to fantasy buffs. Aynber is of course beautiful -- golden hair, grey-green eyes and a distracting physique -- and she goes into frays wearing clothes designed to promote, not protect, her ample chest. She is usually down on her luck despite her many successful quests -- a peculiarity of a lot of heroes in this genre -- and consorts with wizards of questionable skill and intent. She lives in a fairly generic fantasy world, instantly recognizable to anyone who's dipped into the post-Tolkien genre. And there are other predictable elements, each fairly common to the genre: brigands who don't bathe and get drunk when they shouldn't, spells that backfire with comical (and dangerous) results, a heroine who loses her top in a struggle so her breasts "heave in the moonlight."

But after two fairly standard thud-and-blunder tales, de Lint begins settling into certain choices that would figure heavily in his later work. In "Stormraven," the third of six in the series, he begins weaving music into magic.

The music swelled, filling with mystery. It told the riddle of the tower that loomed over their campsite. Aynber was sure that amidst the harping -- if she could only understand -- she would know the answers to all her questions. She never quite did. But whereas Rhynn's cryptic replies never ceased to irritate her, the harping soothed while it wove its riddles.

Better still are the four stories featuring Colum mac Donal, a berserker among Irishmen who flees his homeland in "Night of the Valkings" after an unsuccessful king-breaking and serves in Britain with the bearish Artor. "The Ring of Brodgar" and "The Iron Stone" encompass several key years in the Arthur legend before returning Colum home to reclaim his lost love and take up his former cause.

The stories, although written separately and published between 1978 and 1985 in Space & Time, work extremely well in unison as a short novel. The final chapter, "The Fair in Emain Macha," also appeared (in a slightly different form) as a Tor Double in 1990, coupled with Fritz Leiber's "Ill Met in Lankhmar." De Lint's sagas are exciting, evoking the Celtic age of heroes with great success -- this portion of the book is easily my favorite.

Colum's adventures in Ireland and Britain came to a close far too soon for my tastes, and I found myself wishing for a fifth chapter detailing his final voyage and his life in ... well, I'll let new readers discover for themselves where he goes, but there's a story there that needs telling!

Next, de Lint returns us to the same fantasy world inhabited by Aynber, focusing now on Damon, a half-aelven and half-daemon fighter who cares little who gets in the way of his mystic sword.

Let's be honest, a daemon named Damon is hardly a unique literary conceit. In "Wings over Antar," he is at least a misunderstood anti-hero, his villain's face concealing a rough-hewn heart of gold. But in "Dark Gods Laughing," Damon has dropped the pretense of inner goodness and lives up to his name.

Without a sympathetic protagonist, the two Damon tales are less interesting -- appropriately, they are also short.

The last two stories in this collection are from the world of Liavek, a fantasy setting created by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly, who edited several volumes about the city and its inhabitants. Never having read the series, I feared the tales would be missing some element of flow or vital context, but thankfully they stand well on their own. Both feature the itinerant minstrel Saffer; "The Rat's Alley Shuffle" is the more whimsical of the two, involving a fixed card game and a wizard's comeuppance, while "The Skin and Knife Game" with Lee Barwood is creepier and far more sinister.

I haven't read much heroic fantasy in recent years, ever since the cover of de Lint's Yarrow caught my eye and drew me into a different sort of fantasy world. I found myself enjoying these early tales far more than I expected; even knowing my love of de Lint's writing, I half-expected the clash of swords and chanting of spells would grow at least a little tiresome by the end. But no, I was surprisingly refreshed by this trip into the literary past (both mine and de Lint's), which ended all too soon.

Avid fans of heroic fantasy should certainly give A Handful of Coppers their attention -- it will introduce them to an exciting voice and, perhaps, lure them into the urban faeryland he now calls home. De Lint fans have already procured their copies, no doubt, and have already learned that it's not the writer they know, but it's a tantalizing peek into his younger days and a teasing glimpse of the writer he'll become.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 7 December 2002

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