This story had a deep impact on me. It opens with an innocent sketch in a town square; it soon becomes a deeply engaging study of the act of creation and the mind of an artist.
If I took out my editor’s pencil, I’d only be able to mark one paragraph in the entire book, where a minor character is granted a bit too much page space to rant about his over-intellectualised opinions of art. It is in character though. And that’s it. The single tiny flaw I was aware of, if flaw it is. I mention it only to show that I attempted to be critical, but could not really find fault. The story is mostly flawless, and breathtaking.
There is a twist that throws a new light on the whole story, right at the end, which as a reader is an absolute delight. As my mind recapitulates the tale I get a new version and insight into what I’ve already learned. This is so satisfying, it’s as if I get two stories for the price of one, this deepening of the experience is something I intend to incorporate into my own writing. I shall read more of Charles de Lint’s work. He is a master of his art. He deserves study. Maybe, even, demands it.
The value of this story is an appreciation of the relationship between master and apprentice. True, this story is an extreme relationship, but that brings things to light that in many relationships of this kind would be submerged, suppressed or sub-conscious.
The world de Lint creates is entirely believable, because it does not seem to be a creation (one of the benefits of a contemporary setting). There is so much that is familiar, that the subtle elements of magic slip into this framework without alarming the reader. Even though the created characters could be interpreted to be largely symbolic, I accepted them in the story world and the more I believed the story, the more they slipped into the ‘real’ world. (Is there a ‘real’ world, I began to wonder?)
The structure is not chronological. As more of the past is revealed, we can puzzle together the present. This is a clever mirror of what Isobelle Copley is attempting to do. .. piece together her life from her traumatised memory. That she is trying to understand the great power of her art makes it all the more poignant. This is a great storytelling technique.
In many ways, this is the classic tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice. We get a foreshadowing of what she could become, if she follows in her master’s footsteps: consumed the essence of her own art. It is a deeply philosophical work, yet most of that is hidden in the art, so it makes an exciting art-thriller set in a student world. I could instantly relate to it … a familiar world of study, university, friends, and driving ambition to find fundamental secrets. The magic allows this world to become invaded without seeming unbelievably weird. The unsettling power of the narrative comes from de Lint withholding the truth, making us wonder, when we mostly know the truth but a seed of doubt keeps us engaged. This subtlety, combined with conflicted characters, puts us on edge and we must read to the end to find resolution to the distress.
The books could have contained all of this, and still been mediocre. What lifts it to the level of mastery (and to the very TOP of my writer’s bookshelf) is the wisdom and truth de Lint shares, due to his lifetime of artistic practice. The story serves to demonstrate his understanding. Reading is more than entertaining, it is enlightening. In this respect, the story outclasses Tolkien and Hobb and any fantasy world I have encountered. Not due to the world-building—there are more elaborate and awesome worlds)—or scale, or even systems of magic (which is not particularly revolutionary). It is the artistry of the writing, the style, that so enthrals me.
He could have achieved this with just Isobelle’s story, yet in these 600 pages there is another story, told through a diary and memory, of Kathy, the writer. This allows de Lint to explore the relationship between artists and writers, how their craft differs and the poignant and heartbreaking legacy of abuse, the spirit to create and the will to live. I found de Lint’s perspective on these issues unique and troubling. He spoke to my soul. Kathy’s tale twines through Isobelle’s and broadens the emotional range; a subtle kind of world-building.
If this is a fantasy novel, it is of an entirely different genre to sword and sorcery. Yet it deals with magic, and an altered reality. The magic is of her own making. The story is of her own making. The brilliance of it is … Charles de Lint.