This year I've decided to explore the genres like I've never done before: a little more sci-fi, a little mystery, some YA and fantasy... For years two names have continually come up as possible forays into the world of fantasy—John Crowley and Charles De Lint. I plan to tackle both in 2012.
De Lint is probably best known for his Newford series, 24 books (so far) which take place in a fictional North American city. Though a series, De Lint's Newford books are supposedly accessible enough that a reader can pick up any one and still understand the story. I decided to give this a try and went with the one that most caught my attention, The Onion Girl, book eleven.
De Lint certainly has created his own world here—two of them actually when you consider that half the book takes place in Newford, the other half in “the dreamlands.” It's no easy feat to pull together so much information, so many events and characters and keep them going for 7000 pages. I was most surprised by the grittiness I found in this book as I think of most fantasy as existing in some world where fairies dance on the heads of dandelions and battles are only fought for the good of all mankind. There is definitely an abundance of “dancing fairy” material in here, but there is also quite a bit of backwoods and urban reality.
While I did understand the story well enough, there was obviously much more I could have garnered from the events of the novel had I know the rest of the series. This was expected, but perhaps not to this degree. Obviously one should start at the beginning if they plan on reading this whole series. I, for one, have no interest in reading 23 additional books set in Newford.
Truth is, I didn't care much for Newford. The books in the Newford series center on different characters and the events of their lives. The “onion girl” is Jilly Coppercorn, “everyone's favorite character.” Personally, I found Jilly to be a bore. I couldn't believe her story, the abused girl who lives through a horrendous childhood to become a homeless prostitute strung out on drugs, and then she's suddenly the sweetest, most bubbly woman ever whose only issue is that she cannot face the idea of having intimate relations with another person. Not only is this transformation not believable, but being this bubbly is annoying. And the other characters in Newford are just as annoying. Their personalities seem to be so enmeshed with the authors own that they are indistinguishable from one another. How do I know this? I don't exactly, but prior to the book's start De Lint gives his appreciations and talks on and on about the music that inspired him during the creation of The Onion Girl. Then his characters ramble on and on about the great concert they saw last night, spewing forth lyrics and song titles in such a mechanical way that it felt like advertising. They all have one mind which raises the question “is this a land of fairies, or robots?”
In general, the dialogue between these characters didn't work. It was mechanical. And melodramatic. More often than not it felt like the dialogue used in daytime soap operas, characters repeating over and over again what everyone else in the room already knows, a mere devise to remind the reader what is going on.
And the dreamlands. Snooze. Is it possible to have any more cliches in the world of fantasy. Elves and fairies and magic trees and Native Americans galore. I understand that what De Lint is probably trying to get across is that the reason these things are in our popular culture is because they really exist in this dreamland. I get that. But that doesn't make it any more creative or exciting. It's frankly tiresome and lacks any originality.
So what did I like about The Onion Girl? I liked when De Lint wasn't in Newford and wasn't in the dreamlands. I liked when he created new characters with interesting storylines and believable dialogue. This almost exclusively happened in the chapters that enter the world of Raylene Carter. Here is a character who isn't just a rehashing of the wise, fun-spirited, magic-believing soul with a love for folk music. When De Lint stepped into this point-of-view I saw a good writer. Great lines, believable dialogue and character development. Raylene's story winds down a little too easily for me, but it was her story that kept me going.
I'd like to give De Lint another try, but I don't think I want to visit Newford again. It's not my kind of place. I am hopeful that the other worlds De Lint has created are very different from Newford and the dreamlands, and that the author is able to let himself dream a little