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Moonheart: Sucking the Magic out of Magic

I’ve just finished reading Charles de Lint’s novel Moonheart, which I picked up at the local Bark & Nodule as part of a search for an enjoyable new fantasy writer. I’ve read some Terry Pratchett novels lately, but I’ve identified his underlying formula, which make his new novels into tiresome rehashes. The latest Harry Potter book has been quickly read and forgotten, like a fun but trashy popcorn movie. I picked up Moonheart because of the front cover’s reference to a “tale of this world and the other,” and because the back cover spoke of “Tamson House, that sprawling downtown edifice that straddles two worlds…” The latter reference reminded me of John Crowley’s Little, Big, a grand, strange, confusing, entrapping novel in which a sprawling rural house serves as the link (or perhaps not) to the realm of Faerie.

I’ve been thoroughly disappointed by Moonheart, disappointed on two levels. I am not a talented enough writer to complete a novel, but I know good writing when I read it, and this ain’t it. Characters are distinguished from one another by the exclamations they use. “Nom de Tout?” Why, that must be Kieran. “Jesus H. Christ?” That’s Tucker. The characters use these exclamations nearly exclusively of one another, and so frequently that I found myself thinking of a parrot screaming “Pieces of Eight!” or a faux chimney sweep singing “Step in Time!” And when it comes to characterization, that’s about it. Well, sure, these folks have different names too, but there really aren’t any striking differences in personality to be found. The prevalence of cliches is so striking as to be ridiculous. On page 258, our Intrepid Inspector Tucker (a Mountie, none the less!) notes that “It’s quiet… too quiet.” Just in case we didn’t absorb this, Tucker repeats on page 361 that “It’s been quiet. Too…” — but then, Mountie Inspector Tucker never finishes his sentence. Oh, the tension! The drahmah!

Cliched, superficial writing isn’t what inspired me to write this review, however. What really disappointed me was de Lint’s superficial approach to writing about magic. A narrow literalism regarding magic is all too common in fiction. While the Harry Potter series is moderately entertaining, for instance, it makes magic boring by making it obvious. Rather than dangle ambiguity regarding the existence of magic before us, author J. K. Rowling makes the nature of magic completely, comfortably clear by trotting out Albus Dumbledore and his magic light-putter-outer in the first chapter of her first book. Wouldn’t Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone have been a bit kickier if it hadn’t been immediately clear that magic really was afoot, if it was possible to reasonably conclude that the so-called “magical professors” were really just dangerous street-bum con-schemers as the Dursleys claimed? de Lint follows the obvious path of Rowling, clarifying for us that magic is really, really real by introducing the character of a “bear/shaman” on page 37 of his 439-page book. During the 402 pages that follow, characters are made to scream “Jesus H. Christ!” as they encounter odd beasties and wonder whether magic is really, really, really real. Since we know the answer already (thank you, “bear/shaman”), there’s no tension at all in skeptical characters’ doubtful musings — they only seem like ignorant twits for not having read page 37 themselves.

Once we know for certain that magic exists in de Lint’s world, the reader knows exactly where his clumsy attempts at foreshadowing are headed. When de Lint writes that “it was as if” or “it almost seemed as though” something magical were afoot, we know the feet are right there, in all their sweaty, stinking, magical glory. For once, I’d like an author to state that “it was as if” or “it almost seemed as though” something were the case, and then for it to turn out later that it wasn’t the case. But nooooooo, not here.

So, after we find out about the bear/shaman on page 37 and get the big “it was as if” hints about what’s going to happen in the next chapter, what’s left to drive the novel forward? Feelings. Nothing more than feeeeeeelings. Whoah, whoah, whoah, feelings. Character after character develops “feelings” about something, and is eventually proven right, which means that we’ll be treated to the uncovering of super-duper magical powers soon.

When the supernatural is exactly as it seems, when the answer to every “if” is “yes,” when everybody’s intuitive feelings about something turn out to be right, when super-duper magical powers are undoubtedly manifest, then magic ceases to be magic. It becomes just another mundane natural force of the universe, to be pigeonholed and parsed out in lessons about the difference between a “bard” and a “shaman,” the exact nature of “psilence,” or (in the case of the Potter universe) the distinction between “wingardium levioSA” and “wingardium leviOsa.”

What makes magic interesting to me is not the notion that you can shoot fire at an enemy with a some hocus-pocus incantation (we already have blowtorches, cans of hair spray and flamethrowers for that sort of thing, thank you very much), but rather that magic has ambiguous origins, unknown causes, unclear effects and might not even be real. The moments when shadows of the supernatural take form and appear to move of their own accord are gripping not when we the readers know what’s going to happen, but rather when we do have no idea what’s to come, what is real and what is not.

John Crowley showed he understood this tenet of magic in fiction when his characters in Little, Big stop near the end of the book to sit around the kitchen table and wonder whether they made all the previous proceedings up, whether there ever existed one shred of evidence to prove the existence of the Beyond. Umberto Eco shows the same skillful use of doubt in his treatment of possibly supernatural conspiracies in The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu displays the same.

I continue to look for a book that avoids the plodding literalism of Harry Potter and Moonheart, that tackles the ambiguities of magic like Crowley, Eco, or LeGuin. If you know of such a book, I would deeply appreciate your mention of it here.

1 comment to Moonheart: Sucking the Magic out of Magic

  • Damen

    You might want to check out “Darkfall” by Dean Koontz. That’s about the only book I’ve read that sounds like what you’re looking for.

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