Role of Books: The Riddle of the Wren

from Dragon Magazine #92 (December 1984)

The Riddle of the Wren
Charles de Lint
Ace Books

Someone at Ace Books apparently decided that The Riddle of the Wren was destined for obscurity; I first saw a copy at a local 7-11 store, and the book still hasn’t shown up at most of the bookstores in town. There was, however, one copy tucked inconspicuously in a comer of an enormous dealers’ room at a major science-fiction convention this summer.

Obviously, whoever was responsible for this marketing maneuver didn’t read the book.

The title refers to the novel’s central character, Minda, who, after experiencing a series of curious and frightening dreams, is drawn out of her vaguely Elizabethan world toward a vaguely Celtic one. Her quest involves freeing one Jan Penalurick from magical imprisonment, but before she fulfills that goal, she has acquired friends from several races and has passed through several intervening worlds.

On that description alone, the novel sounds ordinary enough to deserve its lackluster marketing; it is, after all, a typical quest plot. But The Riddle of the Wren is anything but typical. Indeed, is’s nne of the very’ few novels released over the decade that genuinely calls up memories of J. R. R. Tolkien’s style of writing.

Making that comparison automatically requires a qualified retreat. The tale is not an epic of the scale of the Ring trilogy, nor is it written with the touch of scholarly intent evident in The Silmarillion. Rather, de Lint’s style is faintly reminiscent of The Hobbit; both stories are really told rather than written, belonging to a distinctly oral tradition out of the legendary past. But even that resemblance is an echo at best; where Tolkien’s yarn occasionally sounds like a bedtime story, de Lint’s prose has a decidedly bardic undercurrent.

The Riddle of the Wren, in fact, is especially noteworthy for keeping its narrative voice under tight control at all times. The reader picks up descriptive details as the characters acquire them and not before, and the scenes are rendered without the omniscient intrusions of a twentieth-century narrator. De Lint’s skill at this kind of communication is nowhere more evident than in his depiction of Darkruin, the world in which Minda arrives immediately after leaving her own. Too much explanation would spoil the impact of the scene as it unfolds for the reader; it’s enough to observe that very few authors have done well in hiding the familiar behind unfamiliar perspectives. (Dungeon Masters and writers of role-playing game modules could take lessons from de Lint in this regard.)

At the same time, de Lint doesn’t overindulge in description at the expense of his characters or plot. The cast he assembles is both reasonable and unique; in particular, the outward form of Grimbold the Wizard is in distinct contrast with his very human personality. And surprisingly enough, there is also a perfectly logical yet devious twist in the villainy of lldran Dream-master that sets the tale off from most yarns involving mad sorcerers.

What Charles de Lint accomplishes in telling the story of Minda Talenin and her destiny is a remarkably skilled blending of sincerity and subtlety that is as logical as it is lyrical. The Riddle of the Wren is a work of expert craftsmanship, and as a result it’s the very beat kind of quest story: one that will be long remembered, both for its entertainment value and for the useful insights it can provide readers as they go about designing and describing their own worlds.