Moonheart

by Charles de Lint

Cover image

Series: Tamson House #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: October 1984
Printing: February 1985
ISBN: 0-441-53720-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 485

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Sara Kendell works in an antique store in downtown Ottawa, although she doesn't need to. Neither her nor her uncle, Jamie Tams, have any financial needs; they're heirs, via various means, to several family fortunes, although neither of them spend time in the rich circles one might expect from that. They both live in Tamson House, a remarkably huge mansion that fills a downtown block in this imaginary version of Ottawa, enclosing its own internal garden. Tamson House is an open refuge, accepting essentially anyone who wishes to stay there. This apparent recipe for disaster somehow works, possibly due to a subtle magic of the house itself.

Into this world come several intruders. First, Sara finds a medicine bag buried deep in an unexamined box in the back room of the antique store. Then, Kieran Foy, an apprentice wizard of sorts (the exact sort is a part of the story) shows up in Ottawa looking for his mentor, an old and apparently immortal man who rescued him from prison and taught him an inner peace called the Way (which seems to be a sort of nature-based meditation with Eastern mystic influences). RCMP Special Inspector John Tucker is also looking for Kieran's mentor, and for Kieran, because of a secret RCMP investigation into the possibility of psychic or magical powers that's driven by a rich political insider. Meanwhile, Kieran's mentor, Tom Hengwr, is on the train of a great evil that he believes is the bard Taliesin, twisted and darkened over time, which may now be pursuing Sara for a ring she found in the bag.

There's enough happening for a long book, and it tangles and twists more as the book continues, adding time travel, multiple magical worlds and a house that straddles them, two somewhat-hostile tribes of magical creatures, and a romance. Unfortunately, despite the surfeit of complications, the largest problem I had with Moonheart is that it moved too slowly. It's full of long, detailed descriptions, sometimes of the city but more often of forest places, internal feelings, and dreams. These descriptions are not very compelling and don't have the energy and sharp observation of de Lint's later work. They're not outright bad, but they're not enough to keep me invested in the story. I had too much time to get frustrated with the characters for moving too slowly.

That also left time to start disliking some of the characters. Sara is the best of the lot and holds up reasonably well throughout, but I found Kieran consistantly annoying. Some of that is the odd and eventually grating swearing methods he overuses. A lot is his unexamined impatient superiority, which is shared by RCMP Inspector Tucker. The internal growth of both characters is somewhat part of the story, but it didn't happen fast enough for me. I liked Sara and Jamie and enjoyed their parts of the story, and at least Tucker's parts moved right along, but the rest of the characters varied between bland and unlikeable.

Magic here is based on a mingling of Celtic bards and what I assume is Native American shamans, with a lot of emphasis on internal peace and on music. I'm sure de Lint knows much more about both than I do, and it's probably based on real traditions, but as entertainment I found it rather boring. There are parts that shined: Tamson House itself (which feels like the most original bit of magic in the story) and some of the ways de Lint uses totems stand out in memory. But most of it was both less interesting and intellecutally engaging than the typical constructed magic system of epic fantasy. It's also too prosaic and flat to reach the level of numinous strangeness that de Lint manages in other books.

But mostly, I think this book is too long. There are some good scenes buried by pointless description and interaction. There are a lot of threads, and some of them aren't very interesting. And it takes a long time for things to start happening with any pace. The last hundred pages are tense and exciting (although the excitement at times seems to come from the sort of first-person shooter level where you're up against a ridiculous number of identical enemies and end up simultaneously scared and bored), and I loved all the bits with the house. I think there's a core of an engrossing book here, buried under a few too many words and hampered by descriptions and writing that aren't quite good enough.

Moonheart was de Lint's second novel, and he gets much better. Tamson House is a wonderful creation, but even with that, I can't recommend this one. Start instead with one of his later Newford novels. This one is for completists, or for people who are willing to put up with a flawed book for a mysterious semi-sentient house.

Followed by the collection Spiritwalk.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-10-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21