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Spirits in the Wires

Charles de Lint


US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-312-87398-0

Publication Date: 08-15-2003

448 Pages; $27.95

Date Reviewed: 09-04-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, General


In his Newford novels, Charles de Lint has been building a compelling suburb of the fantastic. The suburbs are generally ignored as a setting in genre fiction. Ray Bradbury made many visits but since, readers have pretty much been forced to hit the hard streets of the big city with depressing regularity. De Lint's latest novel, 'Spirits in the Wires', gives Newford a believable and well-thought-out technological upgrade. The novel is definitely readable out of sequence. I didn't get a chance to read de Lint's other work, but based on this book, I'm definitely interested in doing so. 'Spirits in the Wires' does not map out any particularly new concepts. But in approaching them from a completely different angle, it's much more successful than many of the novels that preceded it in the science fiction "cyberpunk" sub-genre. De Lint's techniques of magic realism are a little less subtle than many of his better-known, more mainstream compatriots, but no less effective. But like them, he evokes his sense of strangeness from the characters rather than imposing it upon them.

'Spirits in the Wires' eschews the typical wind-up for a genre novel. Instead of a simply stated set-up, we have a slow dissolve into the minds of two very confused characters, both tied to perennial man of Newford, writer Christy Riddell. Riddell is a collector of urban myths and legends, a man who studies and catalogues the edges of reality and Fortean phenomena. As the novel begins, Christiana Tree meets Saskia Madding. Christiana is Christy Riddell's "shadow self", cast off when he was seven, now a fully-grown woman. Saskia madding is Christy's very serious girlfriend, who believes that she may have been born on a website. When hundreds of people disappear from in front of their computers while browsing the website that gave birth to Saskia, the nascent friendship of these two women will need to develop beyond all known boundaries in this world and the otherworld.

The first worry when reading any novel about contemporary computer technology is the author won't get it right. Banish that worry for 'Spirits in the Wires'. De Lint portrays contemporary technology is a way that demonstrates he did his homework and more. There's never a hiccup of disbelief. De Lint doesn't linger but he doesn't shy away from the technological aspects of his fantasy; the balance is just right. De Lint has his fantasy down to a science as well. He's spent 12 books developing Newford and its fantastic environs. His understanding of the Otherworld is intriguing and original.

Readers who enjoyed Patrick Harpur's 'Daimonic Reality' will find that de Lint's world is very much that mapped out by Harpur. De Lint's characters are the source of the weird and wonderful twists of reality that infect his imagined suburbs. For readers new to the series, there are quite a few characters. De Lint does an excellent job of differentiating them, but newcomers will not find as much enjoyment as seasoned series veterans. But each character is distinct and they're all quite entertaining to be around, even the despicably insecure Aaran.

De Lint's focus on the characters tends to dilute the compelling plot. Fortunately, the plot is well thought out. It's conceptually interesting and coherent enough to keep the pages flying. De Lint's meld of fantasy and cybernetic tropes is more believable and compelling than the usual cyber-voodoo that SF writers tend to sling. But this is not an action-packed novel. Character and concept are literally melded once readers get into the website. That website is positively eerie. De Lint is trying to terrorize the reader conceptually, in a fashion similar to that of a bad acid trip. It's scary and inescapable, not violent and gory. Fear isn't de Lint's goal; it's merely a by-product of his exploration of the newly created world he is mapping. As the novel concludes, readers unfamiliar with de Lint's Newford may find themselves a bit awash in the huge cast of characters. Nothing will stop the pages turning, though the destination is not as entrancing as the journey.

'Spirits in the Wires' shows a writer who lives so well in a world he's created that he's willing to take it in directions that are counter-intuitive to the reader's expectations. His ability to evoke an otherworld in the wires is outstanding. The novel is well written enough that readers who pick it up first are bound to start looking at de Lint's back catalogue. There's a lot of reading there and lot of history behind 'Spirits in the Wires'. If it sounds like something you'd enjoy, this novel is good enough that you might just want to go back to the beginning with 'Dreams Underfoot'. But if you pick up this novel for a deep dose of cyberneticized magic realism, you'll find an unexpectedly well-wrought world of the unreal one click away. There's no doubt you'll wonder who or what might have come to life between the bits as you wait for the next web page to load.