Promises to Keep – Charles de Lint

About the Book
The year is 1972. Jilly Coppercorn is struggling to stay clean and make ends meet. In the early stages of rebuilding her life from a past that included abuse, addiction, prostitution, and homelessness, her new life in Newford revolves around studying art at Butler University, while surrounded by a small coterie of people who make up her new family-of-choice; her caseworker, the Grasso Street Angel; best friend, Geordie the fiddler; and fellow artist, Sophie Etoile.
Rising from the ashes to take on new responsibilities is hard, and nothing comes easily. As Jilly strives to create a life she can be proud of, she receives a tempting opportunity roaring in from the past on an oversized motorcycle. Donna Birch, the only close friend from Jilly’s old juvie days, has blossomed into a confident, tattooed bass-player who offers Jilly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to leave Newford and start afresh in a beautiful, mysterious city where dreams are almost too easily realized.
The problem is, Jilly still has unfinished business in Newford.

192 pages (paperback)
Published: June 2011 (published again, I should say, as its been published before)
Published by: Tachyon Publications
Author’s website
Thanks to Tachyon Publications for sending me a copy of this book to review.
Promises to Keep is my first Charles de Lint book. After seeing several other reviewers call de Lint the father of urban fantasy, I feel almost remiss in never having read him before – like I skipped over some really important homework assignment. What interested me about this book on first glance was that a man had actually written urban fantasy. In a genre flooded with women heroes and female authors, a male author is rare. I was excited to see what a male voice in the genre could accomplish.
Being my first foray into Newford, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.  Instantly, de Lint’s smooth, flowing and descriptive writing pulled me in. The world he created was vibrant and realistic with a shocking lack of anything fantastic in it. In fact, Newford was so mundane and typical I spent a good part of the first chunk of the book wondering why it was considered fantasy. Once de Lint introduced the city Mireya, I understood why this book fit in fantasy. However, even then the magic and fantastic is a subtle undertone, rather than a hit-the-reader-over-the-head experience. That being said, Promises to Keep makes a wonderful crossover novel for individuals interested in dabbling in fantasy but don’t want anything too fantasy intense.
Jilly Coppercorn is an incredible character. It’s hard for me to imagine her being any more touching or compelling than she came across as in Promises to Keep.  It’s rare to find a book that is under two hundred pages long where the main character is as profound and touching as Jilly was. She is one of those rare characters who will sink into your blood and make you wonder, not just about her life, but about your own.
One of the reasons that Jilly is so compelling is her horrible past. Promises to Keep goes into detail regarding Jilly’s hard past which is filled with drug and sexual abuse. While these themes might be hard for some readers to read about, de Lint treats them with amazing grace and respect and keeps all the gritty, gory details unsaid. This makes the book more somber and accessible. The respect with which he treats Jilly’s past should be noted. He’s incredibly descriptive about very difficult themes and situations without ever going over the top with them. Furthermore, his transitions from “now” to her memories of “back then” were seamlessly done, which keeps Promises to Keep flowing naturally without a hitch. The past is so clearly cut from the present that there isn’t a chance of the reader getting confused with timelines.
Miyera is the city that makes this novel a fantasy novel rather than a compelling character driven fiction. Even though it is obviously fantasy, Miyera’s fantasy is so subtle that the fiction tone of the book is never quite broken. It’s easy for me to think of Promises to Keep as a character driven fiction with some fantasy elements that are easy to overlook. While Miyera is a welcome addition to Promises to Keep and adds additional depth to the book, it isn’t necessary to the story. Some readers may find themselves wanting more of Jilly Coppercorn and Newford and less of Miyera.
Promises to Keep started out as a novella that turned into a short novel. Some readers may find that the length is an issue, perhaps to some a novella would have worked better, where others may feel that a longer novel would have better covered the deep themes de Lint is toying with here. Furthermore, individuals who have read more books in the Newford series may find that Promises to Keep is a bit redundant on stories and ideas that were toyed with in other de Lint books. The feeling that this was meant to be a short story rather than a longer novel is obvious in some of the repetitive feel of Jilly’s flashbacks.
Promises to Keep was a wonderful first experience with de Lint and left me wanting to explore more of his work. While the book did feel a little drawn out and some of the flashbacks did seem a bit repetitive, it was easy to overlook in favor of de Lint’s superb prose. The story of Jilly Coppercorn is rough and incredibly humbling and the respect with which de Lint treated her life should be noted as it kept him from going over-the-top when he easily could have. The lack of obvious fantasy could make Promises to Keep an easy novel for those who aren’t very fond of the speculative fiction genre. Promises to Keep is one of those rare books that will leave the reader wanting to be a better person.
4/5 stars

One Responses

  • Heloise

    I read Dreams Underfoot a while ago, De Lint's first collection of Newford stories, in some of which Jilly Copperkorn also plays a part, and loved it. Loved his writing style, which is poetic without being in-your-face about it, loved his characters, loved the way he opened up a realistic setting towards the fantastic and let magic shine into everyday life.

    He's often seen (and disparaged) as a "comfort" author who paints everything in cozy pastels, but I think this is very much off the mark – as you have pointed out in your review he is very much aware that there is a dark side to things and does not shy away from it either – many of his characters are homelss, but he does not romanticise homelessness, and Jilly and other characters often had to go through terrible things to arrive where they are, something he never glosses over. I think you hit the nail on the head with emphasizing the respect with which he treats his protagonist.

    I see him foremost as a gentle writer – you won't find any fast-paced action in his writing, but in fantasy literature there's hardly anyone to match him for strong emotional undercurrents and deeply felt humanism.

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