The Riddle of the Wren
by Charles de Lint
Though The Harp of the Grey Rose was the first novel Charles de Lint completed, this was the first that he started; and, vintage 1984, it was also the first that he published. Nevertheless, I am glad I read Harp first, because it eased me into the weave of world mythology and original fantasy that is only a part of what lies behind this book. Cerin's world, it turns out, is one of many worlds between which certain people can travel with the aid of standing stones, or henges.
Such a person is Minda Sealy, the abused daughter of an innkeeper in a medieval market down. She doesn't know she has this power, though. Not until a horned man breaks into her dreams, saving her from an evil presence that has increasingly plagued her nightmares. In exchange for an amulet of protection, Minda agrees to set out on a quest to save this being, even though it means traveling to worlds she never imagined, and wielding powers that (in her world) exist only in the most whimsical old legends.
Armed with a new name (Talenyn, meaning "Little Wren"), a bag of stones she doesn't know how to use, and the name of a world no one knows the way to, Minda gathers a party of friends and followers. Her quest takes her first to a dead world, where savage beasts prowl the streets between glistening towers whose builders are mysteriously missing; then to a place where the elven erlkin, human harpers and wizards, dwarves, and the "wild people" known as weren have long lived in a tense truce. War comes with Minda, war with an evil enchanter who can slay people through their dreams, and with the all-but-unkillable minions he controls through something to do with crystals, imprisoned spirits, or whatever.
The Dream-master's gambit is to set himself up as a dark lord, controlling not only people's bodies but their minds as well. But the real danger is even greater. For with the balance between the gods of light and darkness at stake, there's a good chance that Ildran could provoke the gods to wipe the slate clean: a scorched-earth policy that could moot the battle between light and dark on not just one, but many worlds.
This is one of those fantasy books that will make you glad of the glossary in its afterparts. It is full of brilliant but hard-to-describe concepts, such as the silhonell and the Wayderness; the weren, muryan, and Wessener; the mys-hudol, the once-born, and the stone-bound. It has a magic sword you wouldn't want to mess with, a form of mind-speech that would be fun to learn, and a heroine who only gradually finds out who or what she is, and what she is capable of. Minda's development is an impressive fantasy achievement that helped establish Charles de Lint as one of the fantasy genre's powerhouse writers. I recommend his work especially to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, Robin McKinley, and Susan Cooper, among whom I count myself.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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