Charles de Lint’s A Handful of Coppers: Collected Early Stories, Volume 1– Heroic Fantasy

I haven’t read every bit of fiction Charles de Lint has written, but I’m working on it. This newest collection of stories, A Handful of Coppers, brings me a little closer. In it are tales, as the subtitle says, of “heroic fantasy” from the earlier de Lint years. Divided into sections by character and setting, their initial publication dates range from 1978 to 1986 — although a few of them, while written during that time, are published with their mates for the first time here, including the title story, “A Handful of Coppers.”

The first section contains the stories “The Fair, the Foul & the Foolish,” “Wizard’s Bounty,” “Stormraven,” “The Valley of the Troll,” “The Road to Jarawen” and “A Handful of Coppers.” Their main character is the adventuress Aynber, usually in company with Thorn, a wizard (of dubious ability) and fellow opportunist. As de Lint says in the introduction to this collection, “Heroic Fantasy stories really weren’t all that different from spaghetti westerns… I kept that in mind as I was writing these stories, so much so that I’m surprised I didn’t give Aynber a cheroot to chew on, along with the serape she wore in some of the stories.” No cheroot, perhaps, but Aynber’s broad-brimmed hat, scarred cheek and thoughtfully-narrowed eyes are perfect for the part. Fans of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories will appreciate the traits of this equally raffish, swashbuckling duo.

The next section, containing the stories “Night of the Valkings,” “The Ring of Brodgar,” “The Iron Stone” and “The Fair in Emain Macha,” features the adventures of Colum mac Donal, a berzerker from Aerin in the days of the false Ard Ri, Fergus mac Coemgen. Colum comes from a family who attempted a King Breaking, a bid to remove Fergus from the throne. They failed, and Colum, as their last surviving member, flees Aerin with the King’s Curse on his head. He travels to the Grim Isles and enters the service of Artor the Bear, famed war-leader who aims to unite the Grim Isles against invaders. While Colum distinguishes himself in Artor’s service and befriends the wizard Merelyn, his heart yearns for his home. In time, he returns to depose Fergus and marry his sweetheart, Maeve.

De Lint writes Colum’s stories in a style that attempts to incorporate Celtic language patterns, rhythms and sounds. Usually, I’m not a fan of such writing, finding it irritating and tiresome, especially when the writer can’t maintain the artificial style and lapses back into his or her own more familiar language patterns. However, de Lint uses a light and consistent hand overall, avoiding odd spellings and too much pseudo-archaic grammar. The re-imagined Arthurian setting is intriguing, as well, and also not too overdone.

“Damon: A Prologue,” “Wings over Antar” and “Dark God Laughing” tell the travails of Damon, god-cursed half-daemon warrior. Of all the stories in this collection, these are most delightfully, completely within the romantic, tragic, “high fantasy” style. I can’t resist giving you a taste.

“There was death in his eyes as he stood and surveyed that weather-worn structure. Death that blazed crimson as his emotions seethed within him… The pain of his many wounds — though ever-present — was greatly lessened now, both from that strange healing brew of Rhiannon’s and his own daemon-bred resilience. Still, he could feel a sluggishness in his movements and a dulling of his senses. These signs he heeded not: vengeance was on his mind.”
See what I mean? Glorious!

In the introduction, de Lint takes an apologetic tone when describing these early stories, calling them “awkward and earnest, and desperately in need of a good editor.” I think he protests too much. Certainly, they are more outward-focussed than his recent work; the protagonists solve their problems by spilling glistening piles of entrails with the tip of a sword named something like “Banes-lord,” rather than struggling with their own fears and travelling with the “little mysteries” to encounter the deep magic of the spirit. But the energy and enthusiasm of the stories is infectious. I read them with pleasure, enjoying the simple but entertaining plots, laughing at Thorn’s ill-fated attempts to cast spells, wallowing in Damon’s grief at his lost life, wincing when sprays of blood splattered the walls. This is classic escapist literature, and good stuff.

The last section of the book contains two stories, “The Rat’s Alley Shuffle” and “The Skin & Knife Game” (written with Lee Barwood), which are set in the shared imaginary world of Liavek, created by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly. These stories need no apology at all. Saffer, the main character, is deep and round in the way only de Lint can make a character, simultaneously funny and earnest, brave and practical. She’s a musician who lives from commission to commission in the rowdy, quirky city of Liavek, where everybody has luck and everybody can lose it, and the wizards live on a street that’s never in the same place twice. As a long-time lover of Liavek, I was thrilled to see it again, through the eyes of a de Lintian heroine.

Much as de Lint may say otherwise, these early stories of his are not merely for the devoted fan who wants to own everything by de Lint, no matter how immature. They stand — no they leap, run, slice back-handed and come up grinning — all on their own.

(Subterranean Press, 2003)

About Grey Walker

Grey Walker is a Narrative American (with thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin for coining that term). Although she makes money as a librarian, she makes her life as a reader and writer of stories and reviews of stories. She has a growing interest in the interstitial arts. The album she listens to most often is Morning Walk by Metamora. The book she re-reads most often (and she never owns a book unless she intends to read it more than once) is The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien.