Charles de Lint wrote Eyes Like Leaves in 1980, but he didn’t publish it then. In 1980, he explains in the foreword, he had written two “alternate world” stories and one contemporary fantasy; de Lint thought that a third alternate world fantasy would typecast him, and he didn’t want to be restricted. Thus the book languished for thirty years before being brought out.
The cover on the Advanced Reader Copy I read features a regal, red-haired, antlered woman, wearing an oak-leaf mask, a fox at her feet. It has almost nothing to do with the book (except perhaps the leaves) but it is gorgeous and inviting and I hope that Tachyon Press doesn’t change a thing.
In Eyes Like Leaves, the land of the Green Isles is under double assault. The yellow-haired Saramand and their warships have come a-viking, and this time they plan to colonize, while winter creeps steadily down from the north. Strange demons and beasts roam the night. This is because Hafarl and Lothan, sons of the Horned God and the Lady, are locked in a struggle, and Lothan is winning. Hafarl rules the spring and summer while Lothan is the winter lord, but Lothan intends to rule the green isles year round. In their battle, Lothan broke Hafarl’s staff, the symbol of his power, weakening him. Now a handful of humans with green magic must make their way to the heart of winter and help the Summer Lord regain the balance.
This backstory flows out over time, but de Lint pitches us straight into the action, as Tarn, a wizard in training, battles a “stormkin,” one of Lothan’s monsters. Tarn was an orphan boy who was taken in by a dhruide or tree-mage, Puretongue. Tarn learned quickly but Puretongue left before his lessons were complete, called away by a vision. He charges Tarn to find a particular person with green magic. This person will be vital to the Summer Lord.
Later Tarn finds the person: a frail, red-haired young woman named Carrie, who is in the company of a family of tinkers. A Saramand raid left Carrie an orphan and a refugee. Raised in a different religious tradition, Carrie finds wizards and magic frightening and has no idea of the sheer power of her own magic. Before Tarn can win her over, the tinkers are beset by the stormkin.
Puretongue, meanwhile, has located Deren, another person with magic. They head north. A harper on board their ship tells Puretongue about a dream he’s had, about three runes. Plainly the three runes directly relate to the way to defeat Lothan, but Puretongue doesn’t understand how.
The book is written in a mosaic style with shifting points of view, dipping into the minds of the various pilgrims, even Lothan and Lothan’s primary minion, the Captain. The primary story here, though, is Tarn’s. Tarn feels that he has always fallen short. The abandonment by his parents left a deep wound and he must battle his pride as well as blizzards and stormkin at every step of his quest. Of course there is more to his story and the information that Puretongue reveals midway through the book plunges Tarn into a downward spiral.
Carrie has a lot of aspects of a certain type of female character that showed up a lot in 1970s and 1980s fantasy. She has deep and powerful magic but is nearly unconscious of it. Consciously, Carrie frequently frets and worries that she isn’t strong enough and can’t do what’s needed, while she intuitively does the right thing. Apparently red-haired big-eyed waifs can’t consciously wield their own power, because this makes them too scary. De Lint also falls short of delivering a real conflict between Carrie’s power and her belief. Carrie is a less successful character than Tarn mostly for these reasons.
The magical system here is old-school, with a nice use of standing stones and ley lines as convenient power stations for the wizards. One sequence in the last third of the book reminded me, jarringly, of the first Star Wars movie, when there is a “massive disturbance in the force.” The event is supported by de Lint’s magic, but just goes on too long.
Shifting points of view make for a very choppy read at times, especially when de Lint throws in italicized flashbacks. Seeing how rough the technique is, I was reminded how much de Lint has perfected the mosaic technique in later books.
As always, though, de Lint’s story is filled with music, elegant prose and clever turns of phrase. Here is some music around a tinker campfire:
Kinn tucked his fiddle under his chin and began another tune. Fenne plucked a strange harmony on her cittern that, by all rights, should not have fit for the old tune Kinn drew from his strings, but its notes slipped snugly into all the right places just the same.
In the forward, de Lint says that although he went through the manuscripts and made grammar changes, he did not change the plot. I enjoyed the book and I think the classic Good versus Evil plot still holds up, but Eyes Like Leaves is most interesting as a look back at a gifted writer’s beginnings.