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Moonheart: Magic in 1980s Ottawa

Updated on July 16, 2013

Charles De Lint is one of my favorite writers, whose Newford books and stories bring to life the many diverse and interesting inhabitants of that fictional city. I've been meaning to read more of his books, so decided to check out this one, one of his earliest and the first of his Tamson House books, set in a giant house in the middle of De Lint's hometown of Ottawa. Unfortunately, what I discovered is that while De Lint shows some of his trademark charm, "Moonheart" has many problems, and all in all is only really an OK book.

Tamson House is a giant house taking up an entire block in downtown Ottawa. Owned by Jaime Tams and his niece Sara Kendall, it serves as a place to crash for all sorts of eccentric and interesting people, especially the former bike gang member Blue. Sara and Jamie are comfortably wealthy enough to pursue their hobbies as jobs, which in Sara's case involves working in a junk shop she and her uncle own.

One day while rummaging around in the back, she comes across a pouch full of strange things, most especially an engraved bone disc and a gold ring. Sara finds them interesting, but doesn't realize what she's discovered until rookie wizard Kieran Foy comes to town to look for his mysterious master Thomas Hengwr and draws Sara, Jamie, Blue, and Tamson House itself into a complicated plot involving the Mounties, criminal thugs, Native American spirits, the Welsh bard Taliesin, and a mysterious evil known as Mal'e'ka. Kieran, Sara, and Jamie all have surprising destinies to fulfill, if they, their friends, and Tamson House itself can survive the onslaught by Mal'e'ka which threatens to destroy them all.

The first problem with "Moonheart" is that it is written in a limited third person perspective, but the perspective changes from character to character with little to no forewarning. This gets really disorienting and annoying after awhile, making it hard to keep track of who knows what and where they are in the story. On a related note, the story is way too complicated to easily keep track of, and suffers from some pacing problems by having characters stuck in various situations to bide time, only for action to burst out of nowhere. The last few chapters have at least two major plot revelations that really should have come somewhere between halfway and two thirds of the way into the narrative, but seem like afterthoughts.

I was also troubled by De Lint's treatment of Indians/First Nations/Native Americans, who are made up entirely of noble non-Westernized shamans, or essentially the stereotypical "Magical Native American" trope. I was a little impressed De Lint was able to come up with an entirely invented Native system of magic (very different from the Celtic magical system he also introduces), but something about it seemed inauthentic to me, and I think it may have worked better had it been more closely tied to actual tribal practices and beliefs (although for all I know De Lint may have been using the customs of a tribe I'm unfamiliar with and I'm just talking out of my butt).

De Lint is one of the masters of urban fantasy (fantasy in the modern world), as his Newford stories and contributions to the Bordertown books can attest. However, this is not a particularly good example of that, with the story segregating into an almost entirely mundane story happening in real world Ottawa, while a much more magical tale occurs in the Otherworld of spirits and nature. There are some glimmers of De Lint's potential however, when elements of the Otherworld begin to bleed into the human world.

Despite my problems with the book, De Lint is an interesting and engaging writer, and I liked his descriptions and characters. I liked that he was unafraid to have his protagonists (particularly Sara and Kieran) on different sides of his conflicts, and his hinted at tension between Celtic and Native magical systems (even though nothing much came of it). His characters seemed like real people (most of them at least) and I would love to get to know them better.

All in all, even though this book was somewhat disappointing I haven't given up on Charles De Lint yet. Hopefully I'll like the next book by him that I read better.


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