Charles de Lint,
Spirits in the Wires
(Tor, 2003)

Charles de Lint is already credited with helping to create a new form of fantasy novel. Under the talented craft of de Lint and a handful of other visionary writers, the genre -- once dominated by tales of dungeons, dragons and dwarves -- has grown to include a rich contemporary vein set in modern cities and countrysides.

Now, de Lint is carving out a fresh niche for modern lore -- the Internet. Very different from William Gibson's cyberpunk and other science-fiction variations on the theme, Spirit in the Wires begins to develop a new mythology for the modern age. For, if gods and other fantastic beings can exist in our world as well as countless otherworlds, why would they not seek homes and domains in this unexplored and possibly endless frontier?

The center of the story is, of course, the Wordwood, a nexus for information created by several denizens of Newford in earlier de Lint stories. But Wordwood has long since taken on a life of its own, far beyond the ken of its makers. It has outgrown its server, existing somewhere in cyberspace with no visible base. Code? Who needs code? And in Saskia, girlfriend of folklore expert Christy Riddell, the Wordwood has spawned life.

But the Internet is vulnerable to technological mischief, and a malicious virus -- designed as a "prank" to inconvenience certain people -- has corrupted the Wordwood's soul. (If only it had been Mac-based, all this could have been avoided!) First, the useful site goes down, and its loss is suitably annoying to its many users ... but soon they start to vanish, by the dozens, hundreds and possibly thousands. Among the missing are Saskia, virus creator Jackson Hart and Christiana Tree, Christy's elusive shadow self.

Christy leads the way to find them, but he cannot do it alone. Among his allies are his always-reliable brother Geordie, bookshop owner Holly Rue and her live-in hob Dick, the eternal bluesman Robert Lonnie (who has his own issues -- and hellhounds -- to deal with on this adventure), the gypsy tinker Borrible Jones and more.

The story breaks ground in an exciting manner, as a global variety of mythological elements are blended into a technological world that, for all its data streams and binary codes, bears a remarkable resemblance to an endless forest. Or a vast library. Or an ocean, and a fallen giant....

Just as you can always count on de Lint for realistic character development and interaction, you can also count on unexpected twists and surprises as his stories unfold. Spirits in the Wires is no exception.

On the down side, de Lint has thrust an unusually large number of characters, both familiar and new, into the tale, so much so that the book feels crowded as you read. Even the perennial Jilly Coppercorn, who doesn't appear in this book (having been incapacitated in The Onion Girl), is mentioned by other characters enough times to warrant a supporting-role credit. It never becomes unduly confusing -- de Lint has far too deft a hand at characterization to make that blunder -- but it does feel sometimes like being jostled on a crowded street.

It also continues the trend of exposing every Newford resident to elements of mystery -- and, really, how much of a mystery can it be if everyone's in on it? The fantastic is no longer extraordinary or rare on the streets of Newford; it's simply business as usual. I can understand de Lint's desire to avoid creating a "Scooby gang," a regular cast of characters who deal with all of the city's supernatural and strange events, but by now I can't help but wonder if there's anyone living in or near this thriving metropolis who hasn't witnessed irrefutable evidence of gods, spirits and mystical places.

But de Lint has the power to draw readers back to his world, again and again, simply by devising real people who exist in our world (or its very close neighbor) and who touch magic and mystery in ways we can only begin to imagine. He makes it possible to dream that we, too, might stumble into another world or catch a mystery at play on some random city street. And, with Spirits in the Wires, he extends that hope to the Internet, leaving us to wonder what lies behind the computer screen and at the end of a modem connection. De Lint, alone, can take us there.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 3 April 2004

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