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.

Recent book reads

Just read three of the 2014 Best For Young Adult (BFYA) books. I like YA because they’re usually more imaginative and (in many cases) more ‘real’ than much of the usual commercial books out there. I think this is because teens and young adults are more open to something that’s new and different; they haven’t (necessarily) frozen themselves into the “adult mind” and its “I only want the same old stuff I liked before” mode.

So here are some quick reviews of the three:

A Trick Of The Light

Lois Metzger

In this book, an unidentified narrator tells the story of a guy who pretty much has his high school life together (popular star athlete, good grades, good relationships with friends and family) who starts hearing a voice. The voice tells him to work harder, exercise more, eat less, make himself perfect. He starts listening to the voice, doing what it says, although there are times when the voice has to struggle to get him to do what he’s told. Turns out, the voice is the narrator.

Where’s the voice coming from – is it a demon? An alien? No, it’s the voice of his eating disorder, anorexia.

Metzger wrote the book because 10% of anorexics are guys, but very little study is done of male anorexia because it’s perceived as a “girl’s disease.”

The story ends with him recovering – but the voice is still there, tempting and trying to manipulate him – so it ends with the reality that no matter how much he wants that voice to go away, he’ll always be fighting the disorder.

This is the first story I’ve read in which the narrator is a disease. People who suffer from chronic conditions have characterized their conditions as having a character, an identity or personality apart from their own. So it was neat reading a story that builds on that.

The White Bicycle

Beverly Brenna

This is the concluding volume of a trilogy telling the first-person story of a (now) 19-year-old woman with Aspberger’s Syndrome. In this volume, she and her mother and her mother’s boyfriend have gone to live in France for the summer. The boyfriend has hired the narrator to take care of his physically-handicapped son. She has to adjust to a number of things (change from America to France, the presence of mother’s boyfriend) and is still struggling to deal with her condition. She’s also wrestling with what independence means (to her and her relationship with society) and what she wants to do about college and such.

My godson is Aspbergian in his mid-twenties. He paints pictures, he has started designing games. He has come a long way when it comes to communicating and interacting with people. What I particularly liked about the book is how true the author is to an Aspergian character’s viewpoint. While reading it, I could easily recognize something she thinks or says or how she acts as something my godson has mentioned or done.

I also liked that it was set in sourthern France, which I haven’t visited yet. The narrator’s limited ability to speak French is many steps ahead of my non-French! So that part was cool.

The narrator’s parents’ marriage disintegrated over the course of the trilogy under the strain of raising an Aspbergian child, so I’d recommend the trilogy for anyone interested in Aspberger’s or any autism spectrum disorder, any young adult Aspbergian, or siblings of someone on the spectrum.

Rags & Bones

Melissa Marr & Tim Pratt (editors)

Forget the “Best For Young Adults” label. (Although this is a great book for YA, too.) This is a great collection of modern retellings of classic old stories, such as Sleeping Beauty, The Castle of Otranto (the very first Gothic novel ever published!) and so on. Retold by well-known authors, such as Neil Gaiman.

The ones that stuck with me the most are the retelling of:

  • Sleeping Beauty – in which we find out that as everyone in the castle has been sleeping, the wicked witch has been keeping herself young and immortal by slowly draining their lives. The ending is NOT what you expect!
  • The Castle of Otranto – in which we experience some events of the original story translated to the modern day where a movie crew is filming a movie at the actual Otranto Castle in Italy when one of the stars is killed by a strong wind that blows his trailer over a cliff. The ending is NOT that of the book, since the forces behind the goings-on get their way (to have people leave the castle alone).

Recommend reading any or all of them!