In honor of my birthday, one commenter will get a copy of T. Kingfisher‘s southern gothic horror novel, The Twisted Ones. In this column I discuss my reaction to a re-read of a classic 1990s fantasy novel.
Published in 1998, Someplace to be Flying is not the first entry in Charles de Lint’s NEWFORD series. It’s the fifth book in publishing order, with several earlier works being story collections. In my opinion, it’s a fine place to start the series and get introduced to de Lint’s fictional midwestern Canadian city (probably modeled on Ottawa) and his blend of folk magic, folk music and just folks. The magic might seem old-fashioned now, but it’s a rich, layered, coherent system. On a recent re-read, I was struck by de Lint’s masterly use of storytelling distance.
The book’s 26 years old; as is often the case, I couldn’t remember for sure if I’d read it until I started it. The basics came back to me quickly. Set in 1996, the story is dated, but not badly. What it brings to the fore is a powerful sense of community, or communities, an appreciation of roots and history, both good and bad.
Another thing I appreciated; while it’s clear several of these characters have met before, you don’t have to have read those stories to understand what’s happening here. De Lint helps us along by giving us two more-or-less ordinary mortals to start with; Hank, who drives a gypsy cab (1996 was before rideshares), and Lily. Within the first few pages they both become embroiled in an act of life-threatening violence, and are saved by two strange street-girls, who we will see much more of as the story progresses.
Hank may be ordinary, but he has friends connected with the magical world of Newford, especially the animal people. Lily may be ordinary, but she’s sought out the weird guy Jack Daw who lives in a junkyard and tells stories, and as we follow Lily, we see that she is quite connected to the magical communities, she just doesn’t know it. Some reviewers now say that de Lint helped create the genre of “urban fantasy” with these stories, and I remember when I first came across them that the crossover—regular people but magic all around—was what attracted me.
On this read, I was startled and even confused by how hetero everything was. It felt like a big chunk of landscape was missing—really? No gay people?–although I don’t remember thinking that back in the 90s when I read it the first time. It’s an example of how the genre has changed—I would say, “grown.”
Having watched crows and ravens for a while now, I would also say that while Maida and Zia, the crow girls, are wonderful, they don’t seem very much like crows, with a few exceptions— their lack of social boundaries, unfamiliarity with the concept of “ownership,” and a love of shiny things.
It was the author’s use of psychic distance that caught my attention—not within the story, but in telling the story. Someplace to be Flying is filled with murder, violence, betrayal, and feuds that go back… well, to the beginning of the world. It’s also filled with loyalty, love, tenderness and yearning. In a time where both the news and most fictional entertainments deliver up one gruesome scene after another, one instance of horrific violence after another, de Lint writes a book that is part generational feud, part thriller and part fantasy while creating artistic distance from the violence. It’s not that the violence isn’t real. When Hank’s shot, it’s real. When the crow girls approach the fox-man Ray as he tries to lure Kerry out of their house, the menace in their voices and the knives in their hands are convincing. De Lint isn’t afraid to tackle the consequences of anger, cruelty and selfishness. He chooses not to wallow. He evokes rather than showcases.
When Nettie, a woman connected to Jack, is killed by the Morgan family in the 1970s, we know exactly what was done to her and how horrible it was. It’s not shown to us. Her actual death, dropped onto rocks from a great height, is given one or two sentences. Later, Jack’s rampage through the Morgan farmstead is brutal, not blood-soaked. We see that by the end of it, Jack has killed every one of the Morgans. De Lint doesn’t shy away from the description of a blood-drenched hotel room near the end, but he doesn’t create every single dismemberment for us. The emotional reactions of the observers show us what we need to know.
This isn’t squeamishness. In Someplace to be Flying, de Lint chooses to zoom the camera lens in on the emotional conflicts. We feel Karry’s isolation, alone in her strange city, in her new unfurnished apartment. We share Katy’s fear of the unknown woman who is coming to kill her. We struggle as Hank struggles, with trust, with love. Like the artist Rory, who carries a drop of the blood of the animal people, we fight as he fights denial, and it hurts us when he fails to punch through it, choosing to return to turn and cling to a view of a narrower world than the one around him.
In much the same way, when the community in Newford loses someone, so do we, and we feel it.
Were these kinder, gentler books? In terms of language and description, yes. The emotional conflicts are real. While many current works show us characters resolving emotional conflicts, internal and interpersonal, rather quickly, de Lint gives us a world where people struggle with their feelings and their behavior. With the trickster character Cody, we see a being who believes he’s making things right as he makes them worse and worse. At the end, he seems to have come to this realization himself, but the story shows us that Cody isn’t someone who can maintain this insight. He’s a millennia-old trickster, and very human.
De Lint’s careful use of storytelling distance gives Someplace to be Flying the feel of a generational saga as well as a story of magic. Twenty-six years on, it still holds up.