Charles de Lint is known as “the godfather of urban fantasy,” and indeed, it’s in that genre that he’s made his mark – he’s never been a writer of heroic fantasy: in a better than thirty year career, very few buckles get swashed, although the two short novels included in Jack of Kinrowan — Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon — come close, something of a romp a la Dumas pere — by way of Harold Lloyd, perhaps. Both concern the adventures of Jacky Rowan and Kate Hazel, best friends who find themselves enmeshed in the doings of the land of Faerie that coexists with modern-day Ottawa.
(These stories share the universe of Yarrow, Moonheart and Spiritwalk.)
In Jack the Giant Killer, Jacky, in the throes of breaking up with her boyfriend and wondering what’s becoming of her life, witnesses (while somewhat more than three sheets to the wind) the murder of a hob by the Wild Hunt (what Jacky actually sees is a small, perhaps elderly man and a group of bikers). She learns their true identities from Dunrobin Finn, another hob, when she revisits the scene, in the park behind a mysterious house that appears deserted, although Jacky is sure she saw someone watching from the window. The mysterious watcher is Bhruic Dearg, the Gruagach (court wizard and keeper of the luck) of Kinrowan. The Unseelie Court, the evil of Faerie, have become more and more powerful and have kidnapped the Laird’s daughter, who is the only one who can keep the Seelie Court safe during the coming Samhaine Eve. Jacky and her friend Kate Hazel, whom Finn dubs “Kate Crackernuts,” decide to help by rescuing the Laird’s daughter. Jacky is captured by the Host of the Unseelie Court, and in company with a fellow captive, Eilian, son of the Laird of Dunlogan, she makes her escape just as Kate arrives to rescue her. Jacky eventually becomes the Jack of Kinrowan, a combination of hero and gruagach, and Bhruic departs to resume his life as a bard.
Drink Down the Moon introduces Johnny Faw, a fiddler, and Jemi Pook, who on the murder of her sister becomes the Pook of Puxill, the leader of the rade of the fiaina sidhe, from which they draw their luck. In the meantime, a mysterious stranger has charmed Jacky and gained entrance to the Gruagach’s Tower, which still contains the magic of Bhruic Dearg. The stranger is a droichan, a renegade gruagach, who instead of borrowing the luck of the moon, steals it from the fey, leaving destruction in his wake. Ridding the fiaina sidhe and the Court of Kinrowan of the droichan brings Jacky, Kate, and the fiaina sidhe into alliance, although the alliance itself is as much a matter of circumstance and opportunity as anything else: the enemy of my enemy . . . .
This is light-hearted de Lint, with all of de Lint’s magic. There are a number of amusing passages, the product of the interaction of two not very run-of-the-mill young women with a host of bizarre characters, and the fact that Jacky is a Jack – her victories come as much from blind luck as from any abilities of her own. (She kills the first giant by accident – the fact I that he was planning on having her for dinner is beside the point.) There is also the flavor of the Old World passed along in small ways: Finn’s hobby, which occupies him on long winter evenings, is hand-coloring vintage sepia-toned portraits and making frames for them; a troll who joins them, Gump, makes mechanical birds. The fey are artisans as well as makers of songs. That de Lint manages to keep the resonance that is such an important part of his writing is a tribute to his skill as a storyteller.
The names and titles may sound forbidding to those not familiar with Scottish folklore – they are, to English-speakers, tongue-twisters. Don’t let it put you off: the vocabulary creates a rich context in these stories – not only are we presented with gruagachs and skillymen, jacks and wisewives, but on the side of the bad guys we encounter bogans and gullywudes, sluaghs and duergars. De Lint is wise enough to give us what we need to know and let the story carry us through.
Anyone familiar with de Lint knows how important traditional music is as a substrate for his novels. This is even more apparent in Drink Down the Moon. Johnny Faw is a fiddler who learned the fiddler’s art from his grandfather and has a full repertoire of traditional tunes; Jemi Pook plays the saxophone with a local band, All Kindly Toes. And music is essential to the life of the fiaina sidhe – it calls them to battle and leads them on the rade, and has as much to do with their luck as anything else does. A Fiddle Wit holds their great respect, even if he is mortal.
This is good. This is really de Lint, even though a slightly different aspect: it’s even a little raucous from time to time, given the scrapes that Jacky and Kate manage to land themselves in. I find it very entertaining, and rich enough and tight enough to hold up on rereading.
(Tor Books, 1999; Triskell Press, 2016)