August 17, 2005

Making Fantasy Real

I've been a fan of Charles de Lint since I was in high school. Last year, in preparation for a trip to his hometown of Ottawa, Ontario for a conference, I re-read several of my favorites--Trader, Memory and Dream--and gobbled down a newer release, The Onion Girl. Though they're set in a fictional location, I wanted to immerse myself in his world and then visit the real-life city that seemed to serve as his inspiration. To me, it wasn't just about the conference being held in Ottawa. It was also about getting some perspective on the work of a writer I admired.

So, although I knew from his website he'd be out of town the week I was visiting, I decided to make my first conscious "writing pilgrimage." My last evening in Ottawa, I made a point of visiting the Irish pub where I knew he and his wife were regular customers and musical performers. Though I knew they wouldn't be there, I could see the chalkboard listing upcoming performances, their names included, and I got a little thrill from it. I sat there for over an hour, nursing a pint and working on notes for my own novel, feeling like maybe I'd absorb just a little of the magic de Lint puts into his own work.

His books were probably my first encounter with the subgenre of urban fantasy—in my quick and dirty definition, urban fantasy comprises books that have fantasy elements or characters but take place in a modern setting (I've also seen it called contemporary fantasy). In de Lint's case, this means that he creates characters with a special connection to the more magical, unseen aspects of the world, which still exist today but only manifest for a special few. Nature spirits, tricksters, fairies, and more—they all enrich and complicate the lives of human characters who, in one way or another, live their lives on the borders of what is "normal."

Many of his books and short stories take place in a fictional North American city called Newford, with characters whose lives intertwine to a greater or lesser degree from book to book. I was thrilled to learn he'd written another book in this setting, one that was specifically considered to be YA. The Blue Girl again concerns characters that live on the edges of normal, this time two teenage girls and the ghost of a teenage boy. Mischievous, rebellious Imogene goes to a new high school and befriends intelligent but outcast Maxine, and together they get caught up in a strange underworld of fairies and ghosts in their midst—some well-meaning and some...not.

Having read and enjoyed de Lint's adult books, I was interested to see what would happen when he wrote something specifically aimed at young adults. And I enjoyed it almost as much as his other works. The main difference I could see was that it was faster-paced—though he exhibited the same love for sensory detail and the same talent for creepy, edgy atmosphere, the story was a bit less intricate. However, that's an observation rather than a criticism.

The criticism I do have concerns the dialogue, specifically where the main characters' voices are concerned. The impression I was left with—from a writer's perspective—is that he tried a bit too hard to give the characters these wisecracking teenage voices, so that I was left feeling unconvinced of the dialogue from time to time. And, of course, that took me out of the story. I don't remember that happening in his adult books, even with younger characters. The characters' voices in The Blue Girl would have been more convincing without that sensation of having been consciously tweaked to sound "younger." Of course, I could be missing the mark as to what actually happened during the writing process. Moreover, this is a minor criticism and did not affect either the quality of the story or my overall enjoyment of it. In fact—as occasionally happens when I'm reading a de Lint novel—I was so convinced by the story that I was too creeped out to get to sleep one night. So I still do recommend it to those who enjoy contemporary fantasy related in a vivid but also down-to-earth and believable writing style. However, I'd also suggest that if you enjoy this one, you'll really devour his other Newford books.


tanita s. davis said...

Ooh, I just read Trader, and I've got in my library bag Spirits in the Wire. de Lint has freaked me out before -- some of his dark world stuff is just too real for my late night reading tastes. Few writers actually scare me (I don't bother with Stephen King type gore), and I respect his talent.

a. fortis said...

Yes, de Lint scares me in a very satisfying way. I should know that if I start reading, it will be hard to put down, and given that, I should make more of an effort not to read them at night. Sigh. I'll learn one day. Susan Cooper did that to me, too--I had a whole string of sleepless nights at around age 11 thanks to her.

Hey! Maybe we should do a post on Favorite Creepy Reads sometime in October, and let people (well, probably mostly us) post comments contributing their own favorites.

tanita s. davis said...

That actually sounds like fun... Although I warn you I'm mostly Creepy Lite -- I have a horribly overactive imagination, and I have nightmares like a little kid -- still if I watch movies that are too violent, etc. etc. It all comes from being raised under a cabbage leaf and protected from all harm (except what I came up with in my imagination from books).

Okay: I confess. I was scared of the Count on Sesame Street. I can't blame this one on my parents.