Part murder mystery, part horror story, Mulengro is a de Lint urban fantasy of a different sort. Set in and around modern day Ottawa, the novel is, above all else, a study in colliding cultures, namely those of Rom and Gaje (all that is not Rom), that which is resilient yet transitory and that which is possessive. The book is populated with characters from both camps, and the two most important figures, Janfri and Ola, sit between the two, symbolizing the difficulty a people such as the Rom have fitting into a modern world. Both are Rom by birth, but make their livings off the Gaje; he from his music, she from books about magic. This nearness to the non-Rom world endangers their heritage, and their lives. At a minimum, they risk being labeled marhime (unclean) which would lead to shunning by other Rom.
As the book opens, Janfri’s house burns down, severing his main tie to Gaje life, and a member of his kumpania is violently murdered. The killer, the other Rom say, is no mere man, but a supernatural stealer of souls, or mule — hence, Mulengro, as one older woman comes to label him — with an intent to add Janfri to his collection. For that reason, he must find and destroy Mulengro, despite his skepticism that the killer could be anything more than a man.
Cut to Briggs and Sandler, two Ottawa policemen assigned to the murder case. Baffled by the violence of the first and then ensuing murders, the cops are eventually led by various clues, primarily the Rom symbol for marhime left at the sites, to the gypsies in the city, only to find they have fled, fearing Mulengro. They stumble upon Janfri, but let him go, not suspecting him until later, when someone successfully IDs him. They track him out of the city, as he too flees, seeking help for the fight to come.
Then there’s Ola, who has been making a living distilling her Rom dook (magic) into something the Gaje would understand and pouring this information into books. An unfortunate incident sends her fleeing from her country cottage, seeking the Rom of Ottawa. As they are all gone, she ends up as the guest of a 1960s remnant, Dr. Rainbow. She has no idea that Janfri’s on the lookout for her, having been told she can provide the magic he needs to kill Mulengro.
To say too much about Mulengro himself would spoil the book, but suffice it to say he too is drawn to Ola because of her power, which he desires to add to his own, all the better to accomplish his self-appointed task among the Rom.
Ultimately all these characters, plus a handful of others, are drawn together at Dr. Rainbow’s cabin for the book’s climactic scene. So too are the Rom kumpanias near, having decided Mulengro might be too much for Janfri to handle alone, and wanting to show their distaste for the task Mulengro has undertaken.
Unfortunately, although the book is well-written and paced, the ending is far too abrupt and unsatisfying. There is some sense of closure, but I was left with the feeling there should have been something more. It happened too quickly and left too many unanswered questions. De Lint’s portrayal of the Rom is gentle and understanding and even more so is his characterization of those torn between the two cultures. His typical fantastical elements have been played down in this novel, although there is a talking cat, but the usual message of worldly wonder just waiting to be tapped is still present even if the wonder is sometimes dark, as with Mulengro himself. On the whole, a book worth reading, despite the ending.