Sharman Horwood

Writer and Visual Artist

Juniper Wiles, by Charles de Lint

One of Urban Fantasy’s Stars

         Canadian author Charles de Lint says that though he’s been cited “as the ‘father of urban fantasy'” (Introduction p. v), he doesn’t agree, and of course he’s right. According to Wikipedia, urban fantasy dates back to the 19th century, which may be a reference to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, though they don’t specify their reference.

         Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy. In it authors combine “the real world with the ‘otherworld,’ [which] allows the co-existence of the natural and the supernatural” (Wikipedia), including indigenous folklore with other cultures’ folklore and myth. Charles de Lint’s novel, Moonheart (1984), for example, “uses elements of both Native American and Welsh folklore” (Wikipedia). In the 1980s, fantasy writers were attracted by other writers’ success with this subgenre, authors such as Stephen King and the vampire novels of Anne Rice. This success spurred many to try it out, and urban fantasy thrived. It is still popular. At the moment Anne Bishop’s novels about the Others are top sellers, as are Canadian writer Patricia Briggs’ novels that take place in a world where “witches, vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters live beside ordinary people” (Booklist).

         De Lint is one of the best of the urban fantasy authors: “along with authors like Terri Windling, Emma Bull, and John Crowley, de Lint during the 1980s pioneered and popularized the genre of urban fantasy” (Wikipedia). One of the best books in this subgenre is Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks (1987), for instance, but finding a copy of it nowadays isn’t easy.

         In many of De Lint’s novels, the setting is in the fictional town of Newford. It is a smallish town, somewhere that strangely enough resembles many of the smaller towns in Ontario. (De Lint lived in Ottawa for many years.) De Lint’s Newford is populated with regular people, and some that are not so regular, such as fairies, elves, hobs, and other mythical beings. The core of the story is always about magic, and the overlapping of the real and the supernatural. Sometimes the magic is obvious in the music–usually Celtic–in the art, and in the characters who inhabit Newford. In fact, the town, “has a special task force devoted to dealing with the supernatural” (p. 69).

         His most recent urban fantasy novel is Juniper Wiles (2021). It’s short, but oozes with de Lint’s distinctive flair. The character, Juniper Wiles, was a television actress, in the U.S., but she has since retired from acting. Her series–Nora Constantine–ended after three years and she returned to Newford to take up her life again. In the series, Nora Constantine is a private detective, and the show was popular in its short run. However, Juniper gets annoyed when people she meets confuse her with the fictional Nora.

         In Newford, many people have a predominant expectation that everything will go well. Even bus drivers seem to care more about people than they behave in Vancouver or Toronto. Her friend, Jilly Coppercorn, still volunteers at the Arts Court, and paints, and Jun’s brother, Tam, still plays in a Celtic band. They are all preparing for an upcoming FaerieFest, a different kind of con that includes Celtic music and many non-humans, like faeries, hobs, and werewolves. Juniper can’t tell the difference and is surprised by each of Jilly’s revelations: “if a ghost can be real . . . then what else might be? Jilly told me the other night that Lyle’s a werewolf” (p. 32). She is taken aback. The town also has a hippie type of attitude, and it is particularly prevalent among those humans who mix with the non-humans.

         A few days before the con is to take place, Jun stops at a coffee shop and a young man walks up to her table. Apparently this is his favourite coffee shop, too. He tells her, though, that he’d like to hire her, and calls her Nora, her television character. The next day, in the newspaper, she sees a picture of the young man, named Ethan Law. His body was found by a jogger in the park under some bushes. He’d been dead for some time. In other words, a ghost had approached Jun in the coffee shop.

         With her friends, Juniper decides to find out what Ethan Law was requesting, and how she can help him even though he is no longer alive. And even though he’s dead, Ethan is desperate. A bookseller Juniper and Jilly approach shows them a text he’s received from Ethan Law, just that day. (Apparently, this ghost can send text messages.) According to his text, “Palmer is back.” Palmer was the villain in many of the Nora Constantine episodes. According to Ethan, a supernatural Palmer is threatening the real world.

         The story is simple and delightful, one of de Lint’s best. Like Moonheart, it is “a thriller, detective mystery, and otherworld mythic fantasy all in one” (Wikipedia). It is certainly a suitable read for this time of year, as autumn fills everyone with nostalgia and the slow approach of winter.