In the old century, they called them the Gentry: ancient spirits of the land, magical, amoral, and dangerous. When the Irish emigrated to North America, some of the Gentry followed…only to find that the New World already had spirits of its own, called manitou and other such names by the Native tribes.
Now generations have passed, and the Irish have made homes in the new land, but the Gentry still wander homeless on the city streets. Gathering in the city shadows, they bide their time and dream of power. As their dreams grow harder, darker, fiercer, so do the Gentry themselves — appearing, to those with the sight to see them, as hard and dangerous men, invariably dressed in black.
Bettina can see the Gentry, and knows them for what they are. Part Indian, part Mexican, she was raised by her grandmother to understand the spirit world. Now she lives in Kellygnow, a massive old house run as an arts colony on the outskirts of Newford, a world away from the Southwestern desert of her youth. Outside her nighttime window, she often spies the dark men, squatting in the snow, smoking, brooding, waiting. She calls them los lobos, the wolves, and stays clear of them — until the night one follows her to the woods, and takes her hand….
Ellie, and independent young sculptor, is another with magic in her blood, bus she refuses to believe it, even though she, too, sees the dark men. A strange old woman has summoned Ellie to Kellygnow to create a mask for her based on an ancient Celtic artifact. It is the mask of the mythic Summer King — another thing that Ellie does not believe in. Yet lack of belief won’t dim the power of the mask, or its dreadful intent.
Once again Charles de Lint weaves the mythic traditions of many cultures into a seamless cloth, bringing folklore, music, and unforgettable characters to life on modern city streets.
It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Charles De Lint’s work, and I love his magical-realism stories set in the fictional town of Newford. So I was excited to read ‘Forests of the Heart,’ also set partly in Newford and partly in an artists’ retreat, and even more so when I found out it included famous DeLintian characters such as Sophie and whimsical artist Jilly Coppercorn, who was the heroine of ‘The Onion Girl’, (also reviewed on this blog) and also many of De Lint’s short stories. I liked the character of Donal, an Irish ‘tortured soul’ artist and Mikki, his witty and sharp sister, who works in a record shop.
They seemed cool and edgy and creative, and I liked the criss-crossing of other characters, such as Jilly, who popped up in Mikki’s path. With Donal, we got a lot of references to ancient Celtic myths, which were interesting, as well as De Lint’s signature exploration of Native American folklore. However, I felt that this book was too dark at times- the Gentry are as malevolent as they are mysterious, and characters such as Donal were almost too angst-ridden, too vulnerable. The scene where Donal gets beaten up was particularly heartbreaking. The inclusion of Mexican myths into the cultural hot-pot also felt like a step too far.
I felt as though Bettina and Ellie were nebulous and at times dull characters as well-they didn’t ‘grab’ me, and to be honest, for me they weren’t memorable or easy to read, I feel that they didn’t actually need to be there- and at many times the plot felt confusing and overworked. It is for this reason that I actually didn’t get round to finishing it completely- it felt like too much hard work, with a few characters too many. I will probably tackle it again one day, but for now, this one remains unfinished. I’d much rather read a short story about Mikki and/or her brother- I know De Lint has written at least one- rather than wade through this again. Sorry, De Lintian fans!
Overall rating: 6 out of 10
Read if you enjoyed: The Very Best of Charles De Lint, ‘The Girl Who Chased Down the Moon’ by Sarah Addison Allen
This Book in Four Words: Complicated. Imaginative. Too Cerebral.
Note: Image is by Charles Vess, who has previously designed cover artwork for Charles De Lint