Charles de Lint: Tapping the Dream Tree

Reprinted from Green Man Review.

Newford doesn’t exist. Really. Truly. Charles de Lint made it up. So if it doesn’t exist, why do so many readers, including you and I, want to go there? The cover illustration by Charles Vess for Tapping the Dream Tree offers an explanation: he has drawn a wraparound illo of a fey-looking female fiddler sitting in the branches of the Dream Tree with myriad crows keeping her company. The cityscape of Newford in the background is vaguely Victorian in nature with brick buildings and gas lamps. It captures the feel of magic and mystery that lies at the heart of the appeal of Newford, the place where Charles has set these tales. As Terri Windling noted on the Endicott Studio Web site, de Lint is ‘a Celtic folk musician, folklore scholar, book reviewer, and visual artist — but he is best known as a captivating storyteller, specializing in novels and story collections that bring ancient mythic themes into modern urban life.’ Newford provides him with a place to set stories and characters that are of interest to him — immortal crow girls, trees that grow by absorbing the tales folks tells them, streetscapes buried in earthquakes so that now they exist only as ghostly underworlds, musicians fey and human, and other wonders quite beyond my completely listing here.
Tapping the Dream Treeis easily the fattest of the Newford collections to date — it’s well over five hundred pages in length! Why so large, you ask? Ahhh, the answer in part is that the Seven Wild Sisters novella has been reprinted here! Our reviewer said that, ‘Seven Wild Sisters advertises itself as a modern fairy tale. Including the seven sisters, it certainly has all the trappings: an old woman who may be a witch, an enchanted forest, a stolen princess. But Sisters is not just borrowing the clothes of fairy tale. It sings with the true voice of fairy tale: capricious, wild, and not entirely safe, but rich and enchanting.’ I must wholeheartedly agree, as I read it in a single sitting one summer’s evening. It alone is worth the paltry sum that Tor is charging for this collection. All that’s missing are the charming illustrations that Charles Vess did for the original printing, but all the magic and mystery of this story is yours to savor.

Charles de Lint, like any prolific author, writes short stories that end up in odd places. One of these stories, ‘Ten for the Devil,’ first appeared in Battle Magic, one of the myriad anthologies that Martin Greenberg has had a hand in. Now, I don’t know about your reading habits, but I almost never purchase anthologies of this sort; there’s too little good stuff in them to warrant plowing my way through. So I’m always thrilled when stories from such anthologies show up in collections like Tapping the Dream Tree. This tale has a fiddle player sending two warring spirits away, so that she can deal with the devil herself. Staley, the fiddler in question, is yet another of the strong, intelligent female characters that de Lint has created over the years. And the story rings true both in terms of the characters here and the Newford reality that they are a part of.

So what else is here? Oh, let’s see… ‘Big City Littles,’ which I read in chapbook form, is here. It’s a charming tale of wee ones and the impact one of them has upon a woman who thinks that she’s quite sensible. Now, given that she’s a fantasy writer, that’s amazing! Once the Littles of this story were avian in nature, until they made themselves far too fat and became too heavy to fly! Their wings turned into hands and they became very small folk. Or so Sheri Piper, author of the children’s fantasy “The Travelling Littles,” believes… But what happens when a Little is eye to eye with her? Let’s just say that Sheri’s life will never be quite as simple again.

There’s nothing but great reading here — we encounter a Buffalo Man at the edge of death; Newford citizens who are fading away because no one notices them; the Dreaming Tree itself; a murderous ghost looking for long overdue revenge; a werewolf on his first blind date; and many more. Not surprisingly, we’re reunited with Jilly, Geordie, Sophie, the Crow Girls, and many of the other characters who are an intrinsic part of the Newford reality. The only piece original to Tapping the Dream Tree, ‘The Witching Hour,’ is a tale of murder and the chilling consequences of that action. Let’s just say that Newford doesn’t let the dead rest — easily or otherwise.

Whatever you do, don’t ask me to pick favorites, as I can’t. Everything here is in one way or another memorable. I’ve long since come to expect that a de Lint tale will be well-worth reading. If you haven’t read his Newford tales to now, this is the perfect introduction. If you have read them, I doubt that you’ve waited this long to stop reading and hurry to purchase Tapping the Dream Tree! Now, excuse me while I go read some more of this excellent collection. Now where was I? Ah, reading ‘The Witching Hour’ over again…

(Tor, 2002)

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