Finished it last night. I am of mixed opinion.
I have a slavish love for Charles DeLint, and am addicted to his Newford stories. There's something about a fantasy world that rich, where characters from one story reappear in others, where people know each other and the reader never realized it until now, where all sorts of magic manage to co-exist, and even gain from trading myths with each other.
I've always had a thing for expanded universes. Heinlein does this, well and badly, depending on the novel. The Howard Familes know *everybody*, sooner or later. C.J. Cherryh does it almost invariably well, but in her case it's often more about the fascinating galactic histories, the politics, than it is about characters we know interacting with each other.
DeLint is a master of both types. Setting up rich histories from many different cultures, and managing to explain their differences, sometimes their outright contradictions, in ways that make the reader just nod, say, "Of course!" and travel farther along with the characters. And making memorable characters interact with each other in memorable ways. If it's a cameo, it's a good cameo. It's a useful cameo. It's a funny, pretty, touching cameo. If it's a large role, there's a reason for it to be there, a reason for it to be that character.
And he's not afraid to have people we loved in one novel be less than heroic in another, because we're seeing them through the eyes of another character, and because there are new issues at stake. Good dog Bo, of "Someplace to Be Flying" and possibly at least one short story, is seen as somewhat judgemental in "Onion Girl." Judgemental enough to go along with killing (unsuccessfully) a character who even the bigtime god-figures have implied deserves a second chance. We can understand why he feels this way, because of what she's done, but it's disappointing, all the same. Shows us a side of him we hadn't seen before, and I find that brave of DeLint. Much as I like to yell "Geez, you're all on the same side, get over your testosterone issues" at various television characters when they meet up and don't like each other (Angel/Riley, for instance), I respect the ability to present realism even in fantasy worlds. The good guys, much as we may love all of them, don't always like each other.
This novel deals with themes of child abuse, themes DeLint has touched on again and again, always sensitively and shockingly at the same time. He leads us inside the heads of two separate victims of childhood sexual abuse -- sisters, who both escaped in different ways -- one by running, one by fighting back, *then* running. Both had an indefinable magic *something* in them, gifted by one of the many faces of the earth/moon/world goddess, when they were children. Both, after they ran from home, lived in the streets in some way, and did things they knew were wrong, degrading, awful. Got lost in their own pain.
One made a life for herself after being rescued, after finding friends. Learned to believe there was good in people, that there was magic in the world. She became a touchstone, a source of wonder and kindness and laughter for the people who know her. She became Jilly Coppercorn, a sort of central figure of swirling magic in DeLint's expanded universe. Things just *happen* around her, and she takes them mostly in stride, because she loves it. She's still damaged, still the Broken Girl inside, as well as temporarily outside due to a car accident, but she's Jilly. She's someone you can't help loving, and she does an amazing amount of good. DeLint has shown us this in past novels, in short stories, and in parts of this novel as well.
The other sister, the younger one, started out by fighting back when she had to, but just got angrier and angrier. Decided the world was against her and since it was, she didn't have to be fair to it, either. Didn't descend as far into the gutter as Jilly did (drug addiction and hooking) but never rose enough *out* of the place to which she did descend (con games, complete disregard for any law or rules that didn't suit her needs, and not caring who she hurt) to ever like herself. Spent so much time hating her older sister for leaving, for not getting her out, that she turned into someone who took what she wanted, when she wanted, not caring who or what was damaged, with the exception of one close friend on just as self-destructive a path. Lived most of her life in rage at the sister who left her alone, to be abused because there was no one to protect her, to be abused because there was no one there to take the abuse instead. And the spirit-thing inside her, as strong as her sister's, turned dark and frightening.
It makes me want to recommend this novel to people I know who have gone through this, and I know too many. Both for its own story, its entertainingness, and because of what gets shown about people. DeLint doesn't judge either of them -- he really doesn't. (Jack does; Bo does -- but those characters are showing a limited POV on the situation, and the reader knows they're biased.) The author doesn't say Jilly is good-better-best because she's made it (if she has), or that her sister isn't, because she hasn't (yet). They both have flaws; they both have redeeming characteristics. They share something beyond the capital-S-secret of abuse and shame-- whether it's sisterhood, or just personhood, something binds them together, and both of them show, at moments of crisis, that there's strength and goodness in them. Willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other. You hurt for both of them, and in the end, I think you love both of them. (Not that I didn't already love Jilly.)
And that's another reason I'd want to give it to my friends, to family members, people I know who've dealt with childhood hurts that changed them, shaped them, damaged them - not even physical abuse, necessarily. The things that made us feel wrong and bad and awful as children, that we try to laugh off now, because we're adults and we're supposed to be over that sort of thing. The feeling that because it happened to me, it must have been about me. I must not be good enough to be loved, because these terrible, unloving things were done to me back when I couldn't do anything about it. I must not be good enough to be loved now, because of all the stupid things in my life that I've done, because I haven't overcome this, because I'm still broken somewhere inside. "Onion Girl" presents characters who *are* good enough to be loved, and not in a cardboard cutout, "Good Path, Bad Path, and Bad Girl doesn't deserve redemption, she just gets it through grace and charity" way.
Only that when I look at the number of characters, the names and places and images, I realize that part of why I love this book is the evocation of memories from DeLint's previous novels. Memories of motherless Sophie, who doesn't want to believe in her own power because it would mean her mother gave her something special before she left, that she did love Sophie. Isabelle who paints pictures so real that the subjects come to life, as not quite human spirits -- and didn't paint for years because of a relationship that started out as brilliant mentoring and turned into horrific spousal abuse. Cassie, Joe Crazy Dog, Bo, Jack (DeLint is aware that the world of myth is full of Jacks. He plays with this, over and over. Is coyote Jack the same as Jackdaw Jack? Not exactly, but they're figures who wander in and out of each other's stories) the Crow Girls...
I don't know if a first-time DeLint reader, or even someone who had only read lightly, a novel and a few stories, perhaps, would appreciate this, or whether there would be too many people. Even I had a few problems keeping all the Canid men (dog/wolf/coyote spirits, walking in both real and spirit worlds) straight -- because they tend to play similar archetypal roles in different stories, and we don't often see them all together.
Many of the characters, all of the main ones, are fully painted. Jilly is, certainly. Raylene, her sister, is new, and we get to know her intimately. We know Sophie and Wendy, and Joe. But some of the minor-here-major-elsewhere characters, feel like they might be one too many names for the reader who picks up this book without knowing them from their own stories. If you *know* Geordie and Christy Riddell, if you've seen how many times Geordie's had his heart broken, you'll feel how sad it is that he's back in town at the end of the novel, alone and needing Jilly, just when she's in a place where she can only be his friend. If you don't, you'll feel for Jilly, who still loves him but doubts they can ever have a romantic relationship, but you won't get the double effect, the secret advantage that a rabid DeLint reader gets, in seeing things from every possible angle.
So, I find it hard to judge whether my enjoyment of the novel was enough to suggest that others would enjoy it, if they aren't already DeLint fans. Will it work for them *just* because of the story itself, the main characters, the issues explored, the always beautiful language? Or am I biased because of how much I love seeing and hearing from and about so many people I know in DeLint's huge-small Newfordian universe? I'm unsure. I liked it. Parts of it made me cry, parts of it made me laugh, parts of it made me want to hug both fictional characters and real people in my life. But I'm not sure if others will get that effect, or not. I doubt my own perceptions, in this case. DeLint may have gone one step too far with the everyone-knows-somebody-who-knows-somebo
The reviews at Amazon are much more mixed than my own. I wrote this before wandering across to read tham, and am rather glad I did, because I have a habit of being swayed greatly by well-written opinions, even if I don't entirely agree with them. I have to say that I give some credence to the people saying that DeLint seems to be coasting on his previous character development, in the cases of secondary characters. I don't agree on the main character issue -- I found Jilly and Raylene to be well-developed, and I bought Raylene's transformation, because I don't see it as so much of an about-face as an acceptance of what the character already knew, but didn't want to accept. Nor is Jilly in any way a Mary-Sue sort of character -- she's fully flawed, imho. But... I don't know how much of that is what I know of her from elsewhere. If this were my first DeLint novel, would I feel the same?
I do suspect, now that I've seen so many people voice similar concerns, that this is more of a novel for Newford lovers, than for everyone. And that saddens me a bit, because the things it says and shows *should* be accessible to everyone.