Trust Charles de Lint to understand the identity crises of shapeshifters

Charles de Lint's latest novel, Eyes Like Leaves, is a rollicking epic quest fantasy in which a motley assortment of heroes and ordinary folk strive to save the Summerlord from the Icelord and keep the world from falling into Everwinter. But the most memorable part of it, almost certainly, is the care with which de Lint portrays the sources of magic — and the identity crises of shapeshifters.

Spoilers ahead...

Eyes Like Leaves takes place in a sort of magical version of Britain, full of druids, henges, menhirs, ley lines and sweet rustic folk. The old ways and old gods are being forgotten in favor of the worship of a new god, Dath, and meanwhile the land is menaced by Viking raiders — except the Vikings are called Saramands. Meanwhile, a wizard named Puretongue trains two apprentices for a great task: restore the power of the Summerlord, Hafarl, before his brother, Lothan the Icelord, can destroy him completely and plunge the world into winter forever. Puretongue and his apprentices are hunted by Stormkin, including lizard-y dyorns, direwolves, frosts, and worse.

Trust Charles de Lint to understand the identity crises of shapeshifters

Here's a typical passage, where Puretongue reflects on the sore state of affairs:

The Summerlord was gone and chaos raced to fill the places where his protection had lain. Puretongue's heart ached with grief. North was the Everwinter. South lay devastation and the ruin of war. And the army moved northward. A disorganized stream of Lothan's minions. Slaying. Laying to waste. And the Saramand — their coming so timely to Lothan's needs.

Puretongue shut the visions from his mind. He was weary of death, weary of this struggle. But it was too late for him to turn from it. What the folk of the Green Isles lost, he lost. And had lost a hundred times over.

The book was originally published, last year, by Subterranean Press, but now it's coming out in a nice trade paperback from Tachyon Press.

I've mostly read de Lint's copious contributions to urban fantasy in the past, which are a bit more restrained and contemporary-feeling. This, on the other hand, is a full-on epic fantasy, in which people are as likely to declaim as to speak. The setting is a pretty standard medieval-ish epic fantasy setting, too, and the characters include the Turpens, a family of tinkers headed by Long Tom Turpen who say things like "Brooms and Heather!" and "It's welcome you'll be." The basic story is a fairly traditional epic fantasy quest, too — in addition to the characters I've already mentioned, there's a young woman named Carrie who turns out to be a kind of "chosen one" who's the only one who can save the Summerlord from the Icelord.

Trust Charles de Lint to understand the identity crises of shapeshifters

But de Lint's trademark characterization elevates this book above being just another Tolkien tribute. Every character in the book has a few surprising, revealing moments that makes him or her seem more three-dimensional. The main characters, in particular, have strong, complicated arcs that reward the reader for paying attention to small hints early on. Puretongue's first apprentice, Tarn, has a sort of Anakin Skywalker thing going on, but his progression is more believable and more surprising than anything George Lucas managed to pull off in the prequels. Nor does de Lint's eye for small details and signs of everyday life let him down — for all their Celtic cheese, the Green Isles feel like a real place, where people live and work and ply their trades. When we visit with a group of crabbers, de Lint takes the time to give us a little crash course in the economics of crab-fishing.

But most fantasy novels live or die on how well they depict the use and abuse of magic, and not surprisingly, it's here that de Lint excels. Since we see Puretongue training two different apprentices, and meanwhile Carrie is also learning about her special gift, we get to find out a lot about magic works in this world. You have your "taw," which is sort of like your soul or spirit form, and you can draw on it to create magic. But doing so drains you — more so for good magic than evil magic, which thrives on chaos in the world. Druids are supposed to be able to recharge their "taws" by going to henges and other holy places along the ley lines, but these have mostly been destroyed or desecrated, forcing druids to weaken themselves.

And the main form that magic takes in the Green Isles is — delightfully — that of shape-changing. Tarn, the heroic apprentice, is forever changing into a host of thrilling forms. In particular, he has a habit of turning into a unicorn whenever he needs to run fast. You read that right — the hero of the novel turns into a unicorn. He also turns himself into a dragon when the situation is especially dire.

But as you'd expect, shapechanging is not without its perils. The untrained can forget who they really are, and remain trapped in their new forms forever. You have to keep your true name in your mind, or you risk losing yourself. And if you turn into a wolf or something, you start thinking wolf thoughts and behaving according to wolf nature — and the danger only increases if you disguise yourself as one of the evil Stormkin, as Tarn chooses to do.

Tarn, and to some extent all the other shapechanging wizards in the book, is forced to question his own identity, partly as a direct result of his transformations. And meanwhile, Tarn is learning more about who he really is, and where he comes from. Without giving too much away, de Lint's book turns about halfway through into a really fascinating look at the ways in which our shapes shape us. The shapeshifting becomes, in some ways, an amplification of the choice everybody has in real life: We can choose who we want to be, and our choices define us in the end.

The other thing you start to notice in this book is the duality, which stretches from the Icelord and Summerlord all the way down the line. There's two of almost everything in this book. Two old wizards. Two apprentices. Two daughters of the Summerlord. Two sons of the Icelord. And so on. The duality starts to offer a kind of mirror, letting us see how people could be something other than what they are.

So all in all, what looks at first glance like a pretty traditional epic fantasy turns out to be something a bit darker, and stranger. And it does wind up raising some fascinating questions about how we come to be the people we are. Would you expect any less from Charles de Lint?