Charles de Lint’s Eyes Like Leaves is, by the author’s own foreword admission, the work of a writer still trying to zero in on his identity. Produced around the same time as Yarrow, the book was deliberately set aside lest it pigeonhole de Lint as a writer of secondary world fantasy. Instead, he threw himself notably into contemporary fantasy, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, with de Lint’s literary identity secured, it’s now safe to bring Eyes Like Leaves back into view without fear that it will split or confuse the audience. Instead, it’s a valuable look at the development of de Lint’s style, as he grapples with the intersection between the inward-looking material that became his hallmark and the sort of big-canvas, epic Tolkien-style fantasy that Eyes Like Leaves tries to be.
The set-up of the book is fairly straightforward: a Celtic-themed fantasy world is going to hell, courtesy of the fact that the Winter Lord Lothan has broken his Summerlord brother’s staff. Without the power of summer to keep the balance of the seasons, the Green Isles are in trouble. Beset by Viking raiders and plagued by Lothar’s murderous servants stalking the night, the inhabitants of the Isles seemingly have no hope.
They’re wrong, however. One hope does remain. Those who carry within them the Summerlord Hafarl’s blood – and magic – are the key to somehow restoring the staff and the balance of power between the two brothers, and that’s exactly why Lothan’s creatures are wiping them out as quickly as they can.
Against this backdrop the dhruide Tarn seeks out a young woman named Carrie, pursued by monsters and unaware of her destiny. She’s part of a prophecy aimed at restoring Hafarl’s right and rule, for it has been foretold that she and two others will journey north, to a place in the heart of Lothan’s icy kingdom, to try to set things right. Along the way, various misadventures occur, Carrie’s adoptive family of Tinkers uncovers a key part of the mystery without necessarily realizing it, and Tarn’s father figure, the dhruide Puretongue, reappears with a new apprentice in tow. The journey from first encounters to climactic endings moves swiftly, but it’s salted heavily with trademark de Lint moments of quiet wonder and natural magic. And, unlike many fantasy novels, there’s a gentleness to the setting, a sense that left to its own devices, this world would do just fine without gods or heroes butting into its business.
On the other hand, this is an early novel and an epic fantasy, and the heavy Tolkien influence is apparent. Certain moments and certain critters – I’ll say no more, for fear of spoilers – are achingly reminiscent of moments from The Lord of the Rings. The book is at its best when it veers furthest from the tried-and-true questing formula, and delves deeper into the lives and motivations of its characters. Indeed, de Lint’s focus on the personal and introspective at time fights with the broad-brush world he’s trying to paint, and the tension results in places where the narrative feels rushed, rather than mythic. As much time gets devoted to one of Lothan’s servants killing a single fisherman as to the massive battle at Pelamas Henge where the remaining dhruides fight for their lives against endless hordes of fell beasts, and while a blow-by-blow account wouldn’t have been appropriate, the reader ends up feeling that the characters involved deserved perhaps a little more attention.
At the end of the book, de Lint serves up a bit of an extra: the original introductory to the novel. It’s a massive infodump written in portentous high-fantasy style, and it’s hard to read it without mentally prefacing the whole shebang with the words “In a world…”. But it’s a positive thing that the author chose to include it, both to show us how far the book came from those first attempts to the finished version, and to serve as a reminder that even the “finished” version of Eyes Like Leaves was a long way from the more polished and personal writing that makes up the bulk of De Lint’s body of work.
To read Eyes Like Leaves is to see a writer in progress. There are flashes of brilliance, and places where de Lint is obviously struggling against genre conventions, consciously or no. Ultimately, this is a book for completists and those interested in filling in the lacunae in de Lint’s evolution as a writer. Those expecting the author at the height of his powers may be disappointed; those looking for a way in may be confused. But readers who know and appreciate his work already will see its roots already strong here, and for many, that will be more than enough.