The Riddle of the Wren
Charles de Lint
This is one of Charles de Lint’s earliest works, and although it was an okay read, I must say that I don’t see how he has managed to become relatively popular. Probably his later forays into the more urban-fantasy style worked better (I haven’t read any besides a couple short stories). This story follows a young woman named Minda, raised in a town in the middle of nowhere by her abusive father, who is — yes — an innkeeper. She is being haunted by evil dreams, and then — in a non-evil dream — she meets an otherworldly being who begs her to set him free from captivity by the evil Ildran the Dream-master — the same guy who’s been sending Minda the bad dreams. From there, in attempts to find out how to save him, Minda travels to several other worlds, meets a group of faithful companions, discovers the Sword of Destiny, and — of course — finds out that she is the Chosen One who alone can bring balance to the Force, um, I mean, kill the bad guys and save the world.
The writing style in this book is fine, but the plot felt at best traditional, at worst plain derivative. There were even, alas, some scenes strongly reminiscent of Tolkien. The characters were not particularly well-developed and the plot was rather thin on substance (it mostly involved traveling between worlds and fighting bad guys). I must confess that de Lint included two of my least favorite typical fantasy novel ploys: the super-complicated back-story mythology upon which the entire plot of the novel depends, and the instant-best-friends group of questing comrades. I have absolutely nothing against super-complicated back-story mythology, understand. But two things are necessary: a book that’s long enough to flesh out the mythology so the reader gets used to some of the terminology employed; and a plot that doesn’t depend purely for its interest level upon understanding every last detail of the super-complicated background. Tolkien famously used the back-story ploy and succeeded brilliantly, but then, he did both of these things at a level of brilliance which no other fantasy writer in my experience has managed thus far. I also get annoyed by the common theme among quest novels in which all the characters meet each other and within two days are best friends, trusting each other unconditionally, weeping tragically at each other’s deaths and willing to die for each other. I don’t care how much stress the characters are under; this just doesn’t work for me — especially when the characters aren’t very well developed in the first place, leaving me feeling like I don’t even know them at all before I’m supposed to be on pins and needles to find out whether they survive.
The book contains no deep moral insights. The moral ‘theme’ of the book is probably ‘know thyself’, which has become such a cliché in this sub-genre of fantasy novels that it just bores me at this point. The vaguely dualistic world(s) in which Minda lives contain several races of gods, including good ones, bad ones, and “Grey” ones which correspond roughly to traditional Faërie beings. Minda’s job is to rescue the Grey people from Ildran and make sure that the good and bad gods don’t start duking it out in the worlds, which would cause destruction to all the poor people just trying to live their daily lives. The words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are tossed around a lot, especially in connection to power, but no real attention is given to defining them by anything other than typical and clichéd symbols. Oh, and evil guys kill good guys.