The Riddle of the Wren is the third de Lint novel I have read – the first two being Forests of the Heart and The Little Country. De Lint seems to have two ‘styles’ of writing that are better defined by when he wrote rather than what he wrote. His earlier books, such as The Little Country and The Riddle of the Wren (which I believe is his first book), are stand alone and not quite as well written as his later work. Much of his later work are part of a loose ‘series’ centered in the fictional city of Newberry. While these novels are stand-alone, they are set in the same place and have some overlapping characters and places (possibly events as well, but I don’t know since I’ve only read one of the Newberry books). Anyway, on to the review…
The Riddle of the Wren is a difficult book to summarize. The setting is best described as earth-like, or perhaps more specifically, pre-industrial England/Scotland-like. Much of the inspiration is from Celtic myths centered in the British Isles, and a majority of the book is set in other, parallel worlds after typical Faerie myths.
The protagonist of the book is 17-year old Mindy, living with her father who runs the local inn. Her mother died when she was very young, the father is abusive, and society is unkind (an understatement) to women in general. Mindy is plagued by dark dreams, that are more real than they seem. To not give anything away, I’ll just say that she leaves on an adventure that crosses the boundaries of the world and brings her into contact with a few companions, we see her grow, we meet good and evil and see some overlap of the two.
While the story is unique and I haven’t read anything quite like it, the parallels to Tolkien are rather glaring. De Lint and Tolkien are both inspired by Celtic myth, so it is difficult to know how intentional it was versus being similar due to the same source material. But, there is a ‘Gandalf’ character and an ‘elvish language’ along side of some other similar creatures.
Parallels aside, The Riddle of the Wren is a very enjoyable novel with a story that is not quite like anything else I have read. The quality of writing is good, but nowhere near as good as de Lint’s later novels. In short, I recommend the book and encourage everyone (especially people interested in celtic music) to read a novel by de Lint. On my rating 10-scale where 10 is an unsurpassed novel (I’m not sure I’ve ever read a 10), and 5 is a take-it-or-leave-it novel that I probably wouldn’t reread, and anything less than 5 is not something I’d likely recommend, The Riddle of the Wren rates a 6-6.5. In comparison, it is approximately the same as I rated The Little Country, while Forests of the Heart is more like 7.5 or even 8.