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Jack of Kinrowan, Charles de Lint, TOR, 1995, 474 pp.
Note: Jack of Kinrowan contains two novels, formerly published separately as Jack the Giant-Killer (1987) and Drink Down the Moon (1990), both from Ace.
Charles de Lint has been writing urban fantasy for many years now, and he is probably the best-known practitioner in that particular niche. Reading Jack of Kinrowan this year was a very pleasant reminder of the days when I first started reading de Lint, and of my frustration at not being able to find Jack the Giant-Killer. I've read that book now, and Drink Down the Moon again, and I can say, with little surprise, that both of the novels that make up this duology are highly satisfying, with excellent characterization, and most of all, heart. At the centre of the two stories is a very plucky heroine -- the Jack of the title is really Jacky -- but the books become ensembles more than the story of the triumph of an individual. Jacky's strength is her community, a point which is made hilariously in the climax of Drink Down the Moon, but which is present through the entire narrative.
Jack the Giant-Killer tells the story of Jacky Rowan, a normal human who gets involved in the conflict between the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court -- good and evil basically. Jacky makes friends with a number of faerie creatures along the way, and her human friend Kate helps out as well. Considering the title, it's not much of a surprise that Jacky kills a giant (or two) along the way, but in the very tense scene that closes out this book, Jacky makes a very compassionate choice. And one that saves her soul if you believe that saying about absolute power. Drink Down the Moon focuses more on the story of Johnny, a human fiddle player, which begins with his encounter with "leader" of the wild fiana, Jenna (the wild fiana belong to neither Court). Jenna is murdered, and Johnny becomes involved with her half-human sister, Jemi, and a search for the murderer. The book's events take place half a year after the ending of Jack the Giant-Killer, and all of the characters from that book are back. The returning characters are busy working on the same mystery as Johnny and Jemi, and the storylines eventually converge. I mentioned that the climax is hilarious, but I mean that in the best possible way. The good guys are impossibly naive and hopeful, which is perhaps the only reason for their triumph.
De Lint writes some of the best characters in the business. Jacky Rowan is tough, smart, a bit over-optimistic, and she charges into the whole fantastic element hiding behind Ottawa's facade with a heady abandon. De Lint opens the book with Jacky as depressed and incompetent at relationships, a kind of mechanism for her ready acceptance of faerie. Thankfully, the book kicks into the faerie story quite quickly, and we get to see a more favourable side of Jacky's character. I appreciated Jacky's friend, Kate, as much or more as Jacky herself. Kate, the human friend, is the person whose character arc would, you suspect, leave her as the skeptic, but instead de Lint makes her an integral part of the story. By the time of the events in Drink Down the Moon, Jacky and Kate are two of the most powerful personages in faerie, and Kate is, if anything, better at magic than Jacky. De Lint also refuses to fake up some kind of romance subplot for either woman -- there is the possibility, but de Lint chooses to do a lovely "beautiful friendship" kind of ending. The other characters are all well-portrayed as well, and their actions are always believable. I liked Henk, Johnny's friend, and I liked how Johnny and Jemi's relationship developed. Nice work all around.
De Lint uses exclusively Celtic mythology in these two books, and not in the way that most high fantasy would use it. The Wild Hunt, for example, rides not on horses, but on souped-up Harleys. The sluagh (undead), gullywudes (stick-like creatures), and bogans (generic thug-type creatures) of the Unseelie Court roam the streets of a very recognizable Ottawa. Gruagaghs (wizards) can be either on the side of good, or, as in Drink Down the Moon, out for their own advancement -- the Gruagagh's Tower is in Windsor Park. The Laird of Kinrowan's Manor is Parliament Hill. De Lint's placement of these creatures and these conflicts in modern day geography is ingenious, and seems also to be part of his overall project. But why Celtic? A few of the faerie characters explain how they came to North America with immigrants. Early on, we get a few hints that this country was populated, such as when the Gruagagh says of a house in Ottawa, "'That is an old magic place -- a doorway to the Otherworlds of the spirits who were here before we came'" (38). In de Lint's hands, this focus on Celtic mythology over Native mythology isn't an insult or yet another implication of colonization. Especially in the light of some of his other books like Svaha or the brilliantly complex Someplace To Be Flying, both books which dealt with, in one way or another, the myths and peoples living in the background in Jack of Kinrowan.
Jack of Kinrowan is an excellent book, and the two novels in it make excellent companions. De Lint has a deceptively casual writing style, but his ability to pull in the reader's sympathy and suspension of disbelief is entirely artful. This volume is a good place to start if you're unfamiliar with de Lint's writing, and just as pleasurable to return to after a few year's absence.
Last modified: June 9, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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