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From Barnes & NobleCharles de Lint's Newford is a fictional Canadian city in which the gritty realities of modern urban life rub up constantly against myth, magic, and the visible manifestations of the spirit world. Over the past ten years or so, Newford has become one of the most familiar -- and memorable -- landmarks in contemporary fantasy and has served as the setting for several novels -- among them Trader, Memory & Dream, and last year's World Fantasy Award nominee Someplace to be Flying -- and numerous short stories, most of which have been collected in Dreams Underfoot, Moonlight and Vines, and The Ivory and the Horn. In his latest novel, Forests of the Heart, de Lint once again returns to Newford and opens up another arcane corner of this singularly fascinating place.
Forests of the Heart concerns a territorial dispute between two groups of ancient spirits. At the heart of this dispute stand the Gentry, a violent, roving pack of wolf-like entities known, locally, as the Hard Men. The Gentry are a form of "genii loci" -- spirits of place -- who traveled from their Gaelic homeland to the new world, together with the first great wave of Irish immigrants. Upon their arrival, they discovered that the new continent already contained its own host of resident spirits: the Manitou, beings associated with the indigenous Native American cultures. Over time, the Gentry gained a tentative foothold in some of the larger cities but failed to establish territorial dominance. Forests of the Heart recounts their belated bid to displace the Manitou by invoking the aid of an ancient, sacrificial figure called the Green Man.
A number of Newford's mortal residents become embroiled in this struggle. Chief among them are Ellie Jones, a gifted sculptror with an untapped propensity for magic, and Donal Greer, an embittered, hard-drinking artist whose frustrated sense of entitlement leads him to a bizarre -- and tragic -- act of transformation. Early in the novel, Ellie accepts a commission to create a Green Man mask patterned after the broken halves of the original mask, which has been lost for years but has finally found its way to Newford. Before Ellie can complete her assignment, Donal steals the broken halves, puts them on, and finds himself transformed into a corrupt, murderous version of the Green Man known as the Glasduine. Fueled by Donal's own entrenched bitterness and rage, the Glasduine embarks on an odyssey of vengeance and destruction, an odyssey that leads from the streets of Newford to the adjacent realms of the spirit world. There, against a shifting, dream-like backdrop that de Lint evokes with effortless authority, Ellie and her assorted allies -- some human, some not -- find and subdue the Glasduine through the application of benign magic.
Forests of the Heart is not, to my mind, one of de Lint's very best novels. The climactic confrontation in the spirit world runs a bit too long, and one of the central subplots -- an evolving romance between a Mexican-American curandera (i.e., healer) and an otherworldly entity known as El Lobo -- is stilted and unconvincing. Nevertheless, de Lint's latest offers us a broad assemblage of his representative virtues, chief of which is the overriding sense of decency that animates this book. de Lint's bedrock belief in the importance of community, in the sacred properties of art, and in the absolute necessity of kindness and generosity give the best of his work a welcoming, morally attractive quality that lifts it well above the level of most traditional fantasies.
For me, though, the central appeal of Forests of the Heart is the opportunity to spend some time in Newford, one of the most fully developed settings in modern popular fiction. de Lint's easy familiarity with his imaginary community, particularly those bohemian enclaves populated by the marginalized citizens de Lint loves best -- the artists, musicians, street corner performers, and struggling proprietors of hole-in-the-wall music stores -- accounts, in large measure, for the enduring popularity of these interconnected novels and stories. Forests of the Heart will no doubt be required reading for those already familiar with Newford and environs. Familiarity, however, is not essential, and newcomers to Newford can regard this latest entry as an independent, thoroughly coherent point of entry into a humane, richly imagined fictional world.