Book Review: “Eyes Like Leaves” by Charles de Lint

Although recently published (2009), this novel is actually the fourth he has written. It was going to be his fourth published book, until his publisher pointed out that this would be his third “secondary world” fantasy. (I prefer the older term, “high fantasy”.) According to the publisher, publishing it would forever brand Mr de Lint as a writer of high fantasy. de Lint didn’t want that, he wanted to pursue contemporary fantasy, so he withdrew this book and offered another of his contemporary fantasies, Yarrow. So Eyes Like Leaves “fell between the cracks like some long-forgotten lover” (according to his introduction to this book).

This is a good story set in a version of Britain during the time of Viking raids and invasions. It’s about the conflict between the Summerlord (the power that keeps things green and alive) and his brother, the Icelord, the power that wants to cover the British Isles (and ultimately, the whole earth) with ice. The Summerlord has been weakened when his staff was broken; his power is fading and only being kept alive in the various Summerborn people (people who are his children or descended from his children).

The story moves along, as the main human characters follow prophecies and instructions from an Oracle on what they must do to help restore the Summerlord’s power. It climaxes with the Icelord easily defeating the main human characters, which gives the Summerlord just enough time to regrow his staff and defeat the Icelord. He sends the weakened Icelord back to the Viking north lands, refusing to destroy the Icelord because that would destroy the balance between life and death that nature depends on.

de Lint’s writing style is clear and clean.

I like high fantasy (in which the story takes place in a completely imaginary world), so I liked that part of this book. The magic system made sense and had an excellent balance between capability (what a magic worker could do) and cost (what it cost the magic worker to use it). Some fictional magic systems have their magic users doing spells with little or no cost to them. No danger to them. The magic here gets its power from the being of the magic user, and using it weakens the character. Magic can be even more dangerous than that: if a magic user changes shape and keeps that shape too long, he or she might be unable to change back – or have his personality taken over by that of the shape. There’s a point in the story where the main character (a Summerborn) assumes the shape of one of the Icelord’s most powerful evil beings. He becomes dangerously close to taking on the personality of that shape. That’s partly because he keeps the shape for too long, and also because he’s not only a Summerborn, he’s also a descendent of the Icelord.

My main problem with the story is that I felt like I was seeing it from a distance and through a pane of glass. Being “told” it rather than experiencing or participating in it. I didn’t feel touched by it, didn’t care about the characters. (I almost quit reading it.) It wasn’t until the climax and the end that I felt like the pane was going away.

You might not have that problem, so I recommend reading it if you like Charles de Lint and want to see the kind of writing he could have done if he’d chosen to pursue high fantasy (“secondary world fantasy”) in addition to his contemporary fantasies. In my opinion, he could do both. I don’t think he would have been “branded” as his publisher suggested. Of course, I look at it from today’s viewpoint, 30 years later, in the age of the Internet where the author is the brand, not the genre. I think the “Charles de Lint” brand transcends fantasy sub-genres. de Lint doesn’t have the writing chops to transcend whole genres like Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson or Isaac Asimov, but he could easily transcend fantasy sub-genres.


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