Charles de Lint’s Forests of the Heart

forests_torEl lobo pierde los dientes mas no las mientes (The wolf loses his teeth, not his nature). Mexican-American proverb quoted in this novel.

Some novels are so good, so interesting, that they bear repeated readings over a period of time. I read Forests of the Heart first in the form of an advanced reading copy, and have read it once a year ever since. For pure storytelling, it remains my favorite de Lint novel bar none. (His new novel, Spirits in The Wires, has had but one reading from me as of this writing, but it ha s the makings of another de Lint novel that will get repeated readings. )

Why so, you ask? Well, let me tell you. But first, grab some of the Mexican-style sangria that’s sitting on the corner of the table — we’re headed to the Southwestern area of the USA where this novel is partially set, a region visited briefly by de Lint in Someplace to Be Flying. If you read and enjoyed Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife, which is set almost entirely in Arizona, you must read this novel. De Lint’s depictions of that reality are every bit as good as hers are. Just savor this excerpt:

‘The desert is our church, its roof the sky. Do you think the Virgin and los santos ignore us because it has no walls? Remember, hija, the Holy Mother was a bride of the desert before she was a bride of the church.’

Mamá would shake her head, muttering, ‘Nosotras estamos locas todas.’ We are all crazy. And that would be the end of it. Until the next time.

Then Adelita turned twelve and Bettina watched the mysteries fade in her sister’s eyes. She still accompanied them into the desert, but now she brought paper and a pencil, and rather than learn the language of la lagartija, she would try to capture an image of the lizard on her paper. She no longer absorbed the history of the landscape; instead she traced the contours of the hills with the lead in her pencil. When she saw the el halcón winging above the desert hills, she saw only a hawk, not a brujo or a mystic like their father, caught deep in a dream of flight. Her own dreams were of boys and she began to wear make-up.

Charles de Lint has in his Newford series crossed many borders, with the one between this world and the spirit world being the most common. In most of the Newford tales, the common mythos used has a Celtic and/or First Nations influence. But this novel adds another mythos, that of the American Southwest, where Catholicism and the Indio myths merge into something entirely unique. Now, I admit that the basic premise does again involves the all-too-familar Celtic mythos (overused by many fantasy writers), as the heavies this time are a group of ‘homeless’ Irish Fey called the Gentry. The Gentry, who have come to Newford from Ireland, naturally love Guinness and live Irish music, but very much want to displace the local native Indian spirits and seize magical control of the spirit world here. They are wolfish in nature — nasty, greedy wolves with really bad tempers. Shapeshifters too, they appear as Irish men in suits much of the time. But I never get a feel that the Gentry have any individual identities — with the exception of one who may not be a wolf at all!

For me, the most complex and interesting character in the novel is Bettina San Miguel, an Indian healer from the American Southwest, a place very far removed from the wet, forested mythos of the Celtic imagination. Bettina, who has an entire group of what appear to be wild spirit dogs, Los Cadejos, living inside her, is part Indian and part Mexican. She was raised by her grandmother to believe that the spirit world is real — something the rest of her family can’t abide. She has left the physical reality of the Southwest for Newford, where she lives at Kellygnow, a massive artist residence set in a forested part of town.

She was given one of the nooks to make her own — a small space under a staircase that opened up into a hidden room twice the size of her bedroom at home. There was a recessed window looking out on the backyard, overhung with ivy on the outside and with just room enough for her to sit on its sill if she pulled her knees up to her chin.

There was also a single brass bed with shiny, knobbed posts and a cedar chest at its foot that lent the room a resonant scent. A small pine armoire. A worn, black leather reading chair with a tall glass-shaded lamp beside it, both ‘borrowed’ from the library at some point, she was sure, since they matched its furnishings.

And wonder of wonders, a piece of John Early’s work: a gray, fire-clay sculpture of the Virgin wearing a quizzical smile, blue-robed and decorated with a halo of porcupine quills cunningly worked into the clay and painted gold.

Unfortunately for Bettina, the Gentry know she can see them, so they spend many a night watching her, squatting barefoot in the snow outside Kellygnow, smoking. Afraid of ‘Los Lobos’, as she calls them, she manages to stay clear of them until the night one follows her into the woods and takes her hand…. Bettina and her spirit dogs will need powerful magic before all is done to keep her and others from the teeth of these wolves.

And is the particular wolf she meets really a wolf? Or something even more dangerous? As Joni Mitchell said in her ‘Coyote’ song, off her Hejira album, ‘ [a]nd the next thing I know that Coyote’s at my door / He pins me in a corner and he won’t take ‘no.’ This wolf is perhaps more interested in winning Bettina’s heart than in the magic within her. Just who he actually is makes for an interesting diversion from the main tale.

I have said in other reviews that I think de Lint does a better job of fleshing out characters than almost anyone else writing literature today. I really believe in the strong, intelligent, and often troubled beings who inhabit his fiction. Just consider the cast of characters here — Ellie Jones, an artist who works nights with ‘the Grasso Street Angel’, assisting the homeless; Tommy Raven, a Kickaha Indian not comfortable on the rez, but not at home in Newford either; Hunter Cole, owner of Gypsy Records, a record shop not likely to survive much longer; his employee Miki Greer, an Irish musician who lives for the pure craic, and her brother Donal, an artist whom the Gentry will be all to willing to use and consume; and assorted Creek sisters, the aunts of Tommy Raven, who are anything but mere mortals. All are believable characters whose actions make sense!

It bears noting that Ellie Jones has in her the same ‘wild magic’ that Bettina has, with the only difference being that Ellie, unlike Bettina, doesn’t believe in that which she cannot see. And in order to rule without mercy this new spirit world, the Gentry must have a mortal shape them a talisman which will allow them to wield power quite beyond the imagination of anyone — including themselves. So Ellie finds herself invited to live at Kellygnow, so that she, a sculptor, can create a mask of a Green Man, a artifact from ancient Celtic myth. Naturally, this plan by the Gentry and their mortal associates will go awry, and that is where the story will get interesting. Will Ellie grasp what she’s been asked to do? Will Bettina and her, err, spirit companions understand what great evil is being shaped in this mask? Will Donal survive his use by the Gentry?

I originally thought that the idea of a Celtic Green Man mask was an invention of de Lint, as none of the extensive literature in the Estate library suggests that this mythic motif exists within Celtic folklore. I asked de Lint about this, and he replied, ‘It depends on whether you take the Green Man as an archetypical forest deity figure — i.e., Jack in the Wood, Cernunnos, Merlin, etc., or you don’t. And it depends on whether you include Welsh, Manx, Cornish, etc. folklore as well as the usual Irish, which is pretty much all people think of as Celtic… [However], I did play around with it to fit it into the context I wanted for the book.’

The most interesting male character here is the artist Donal, who comes from Ireland and knows that the Gentry are quite real. (De Lint did not invent them. ‘The Gentry’ is one of the names given to the Fey by the folk of Ireland, so that they can be referred to without invoking their real names or drawing their uncomfortable attention. Actually naming the Fey is always a very bad idea!) Donal, not being the smartest mortal ever, thinks that he can use the Green Man Mask to control the Gentry, proving rather chillingly that he doesn’t understand the true nature of the Mask any more than the Gentry do. That Donal will come to a bad end will not surprise you. How horrific that end will be is surprising.

A truly great novel has interesting characters, a well-thought-out setting, and a memorable plot. Forests of the Heart has all three. One reviewer said that ‘there’s nothing here that de Lint hasn’t done before. A satisfying but not significant book.’ I will passionately disagree with that statement, as this novel is in all of the aspects that I noted above (plot, setting, story line) a classic in the genre of urban fantasy. If you somehow have missed reading de Lint to date, this novel’s a most excellent place to start — though connected in many ways to the sprawling Newford saga, it is a novel that can be appreciated without having read extensively in that saga. Once you have read Forests of the Heart for the first time, I recommend starting with Memory & Dream and working your way (lucky sod!) through the rest of the novels in order. Do enjoy yourself, as you are in for months of pleasurable reading. As Donal Greer notes, ‘There’s magic everywhere you turn, if you pay attention to it.’ These novels make this world little better place, a little more interesting place to be. And watch for those Los Cadejos within Bettina — they will appear with time in a most surprising way!

(Tor Books, 2000)

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I do the Birthdays and Media Anniversary write-ups for Mike Glyer’s, the foremost SFF fandom site.

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