I’d been meaning to read Yarrow (1986) for years. I loved Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream, in which he tells the story of a painter touched by the Otherworld. And I’m a writer (or at least a wannabe one), not a visual artist, so I figured, “if I liked his artist book so much, how much more am I going to love his writer book?” Unfortunately, the answer is “not as much.” Yarrow is very early de Lint, and not my favorite book of his that I’ve read.
Yarrow is set in Ottawa and loosely follows Moonheart; the plots are standalone, but Tamson House is mentioned in passing. The protagonist of Yarrow is Cat Midhir, a fantasy author who has always gotten her ideas from her dreams, in which she travels to a magical realm of elves and gnomes who tell her tales to bring back to our world. Lately, though, Cat hasn’t been dreaming at all, and she’s hopelessly blocked on her latest novel, with a deadline looming. And worse, she misses her friends from the dream world.
This is more of an ensemble-cast novel than the basic premise suggests, however. De Lint introduces us to a large array of characters, of varying degrees of vividness (the book is too short to sufficiently develop some of them).
It turns out that Cat is not alone in her dreamlessness. An incubus is stalking Ottawa. The word “incubus” is never mentioned, but that’s the word I think best describes this villain. He steals dreams, he commits rape via mind control, and sometimes he kills, sucking out people’s entire souls. And Cat, with her unusually splendid dreams, is his favorite snack.
He’s creepy, and we spend a lot of time in his head, and in the head of a secondary character who’s almost as icky. We spend less time in Cat’s Otherworld than we might wish. Overall, the “feel” of Yarrow is that of a serial-killer thriller with magic, rather than the dreamier stories de Lint would write later. I felt that I could see hints of his later work through the trees, as it were, but we’re not quite there yet.
One thing I did like about Yarrow was the role that isolation and community played in the story. At the book’s beginning, all of the central characters are pretty solitary, with no one to talk about heavy subjects with, and that keeps them from figuring out what’s happening. It’s only when several of them reach out to each other and create bonds of friendship that they have any hope of defeating the villain.
Overall, Yarrow isn’t de Lint’s best work. I would recommend Memory and Dream, Jack the Giant-Killer, or Someplace to be Flying over it. It’s a short, quick read, though, and an interesting peek into his development as a writer.