Some fantasists develop gritty, realistic alternate worlds that draw in the reader. Some swoop us away on flights of gorgeous prose. Some create detailed and intricate magical systems to delight the puzzle-lover and game-player in us. And some, like Charles de Lint, create with character, tone and authorial voice an experience that invites us into the story-telling circle, suggesting we pull up a chair next to the fire, grab a schooner of ale, and settle back to hear the story.
Medicine Road is one of de Lint’s most inviting adventures. Set in Arizona, the book follows what happens when desert magic meets the magic of the British Isles. Alice Corn Hair and Jim Changing Dog are under what some might call a curse, put on them by Coyote Woman. A century ago, Coyote Woman saw a red dog chasing a jackalope, and she turned them both into humans. For one hundred years, they had the ability to shift between their magical forms and human shape. If at the end of that time, each of them had not found true love, both will revert to their magical shapes. For Alice, who has found her true love, an artist named Thomas, this will be a tragedy. Jim, who has not been so lucky, has grown to enjoy being human, though, and wants to stop the curse too.
The two of them have less than a month left of their hundred years when their lives intersect with Laurel and Bess Dillard, twin folk musicians who are on a house concert tour. The Dillard girls have had a previous run-in with magic, and their differing reactions to it drive the plot. Bess is left wary, even frightened, while Laurel is intrigued. The girls don’t realize what Coyote Woman immediately senses, that they are magical themselves.
As if things weren’t complicated enough, Coyote Woman has a vengeful rattlesnake woman dogging her heels. Ramona, the snake-woman, intends for the curse to happen, to show Coyote Woman what happens when she meddles in the lives of others.
There are a great many magical beings in this book. This is one of the things I have always loved about de Lint. Two decades before this type of story got the name “urban fantasy” and was colonized by size-four badass chicks in leather, he was writing plausibly about beings with magic who coexist with humans, filling out and expanding centuries of folk tales. De Lint understands the magic of poetry, of music, of painting, of cooking, of telling stories and creating a warm safe place out of the night. In Medicine Road, the magical beings guzzle water from water bottles, enjoy the sun and gossip about each other, just like we do. They have fears and feuds, and sometimes make bad choices.
The curse, it turns out, is not the biggest danger in the book, and the danger that is revealed is directed at Laurel and Bess. Before that happens, we go on a loving tour of the Arizona desert, experience a house concert, and get to know two twins, who may have identical DNA but are two completely different people.
I felt that one story here got shortchanged, and that was the tale of Alice and Thomas’s love. Because they are a settled couple, we take it for granted that they love one another and not enough time is spent with them. I also felt a tiny bit cheated by the resolution of Coyote Woman’s curse, although the sudden pivot to Bess and Laurel was nice. As with any de Lint book, I loved his use of music. He is a musician himself, and his own love of it comes through in this book.
The Tachyon Press edition of Medicine Road is illustrated by Charles Vess, adding another dimension to the story. Several of the illustrations have a stylized, iconic look to them that complement the southwestern flavor of the tale.
This short novel, under two hundred pages, is sweet and enjoyable, filled with characters we like and understand. Pull up a chair, grab a beverage and join the story-telling circle.