Mulengro

by Charles de Lint

Cover image

Publisher: Orb
Copyright: October 1985
Printing: December 2003
ISBN: 0-312-87399-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 400

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This is an unusual book for Charles de Lint, as he warns in an introduction. It's a dark fantasy verging on horror, with far more graphic violence and bloodshed than the typical de Lint novel. Later books along these lines were written under an open pen name, Samuel M. Key, to provide some advance warning, since de Lint has such a distinctive style and is otherwise an excellent choice for someone looking for less violence in their fiction.

Mulengro is about the modern Romany people, Gypsies, who have exchanged caravans for cars and tents for tenements but who still live in Ontario as a separate culture with its own ways. I have no idea how accurate de Lint's portrayal of Romany culture is, but as a culture for a novel, they form a useful bridge between the mundane world and the world of magic and spirits that drive the plot. They are being hunted here by one of their own, a sociopathic serial killer who is strong with magic and who can control the spirits of the dead. At the start of the book, he burns the house of Janfri, a rom who mingled with non-rom and sold albums of folk music. From there, the book follows Janfri's decision to leave his life, the police officers investigating the arson, a Gypsy woman who lives apart because of her magic and becomes the main defense and weapon against the killer, and their various friends and acquaintances.

De Lint's morality is a bit too black and white and his characters too clear and unconflicted for me to feel much darkness in the form of moral complexity. The power and insanity of his main villain offers moments of horror (tellingly, more so later in the book when he uses dogs rather than spirits), but most of the darkness here derives from body count and detailed descriptions of the killing. Characters are not safe in this book, which is good from the point of suspense, but de Lint does fall into the trap of introducing new minor characters in order to kill them often enough that one can see it coming by the middle of the book.

The plot is workable but not particularly original. Once the characters are sorted out, it falls into the standard horror cycle of bad things happening, characters regrouping, more bad things happening, characters retreating and regrouping, and finally characters cornered and fighting it out. What Mulengro brings to the table is its handling of Romany culture and the contrast between Janfri and Ola's perspective from inside the culture and the perspective of the somewhat racist cop who is trying to track down a killer. Expected (for de Lint stories) growth and understanding happen by the end of the book.

The best characters of the book is Ola and her talking cat, a trope that de Lint uses far better than one might expect. Ola has real depth and a great attitude towards the world: strong, practical, wounded but healed, persistent, and willing to let others help her. She also has wonderful magical abilities, particularly her control over her personal possessions. The cat gets a bit cute at times, but redeems himself by getting in the middle of the fight in practical and cat-like ways. (Dogs, on the other hand, are treated poorly and at times unbelievably, however effective they are as a horror element late in the story.) The cops also grew on me as characters: I liked the structure their investigations gave the story, the contrast between the conclusions they drew from their frame of reference and the events the reader sees, and their dogged persistence in tracking down what's really going on.

Otherwise, while the characters aren't bad, I don't think they're up to the standards of other de Lint stories I've read. The villains were a bit one-sided, and while not wholly simplistic did tend towards cliches. The heroes fared better, but I never fell in love with the characters the way that I have in other de Lint books. This is one of those books where I felt the plot stirred the characters around, shuffled them a bit, and deposited them in new locations, but for the most part the characters didn't change. And the constant killings and graphic descriptions wore on me, in part because they're not woven into a deeper underlying pattern. They're just example after example after example of how evil and dangerous the villain is. I would have been happy had de Lint stopped at five or six.

I can't really recommend this one. De Lint is still a good storyteller, but this is an earlier novel, it doesn't feel as rich as his later work, it's not terribly successful as a horror novel, and the darkness struck me more as unnecessary blood and gore. There are a lot of other de Lint novels I'd read first.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-04-17

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21