De Lint, Charles. Trader. New York: Tor Books, 1997. ISBN 0-312-85847-7. $24.95 (hardback), 352 pp.
(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 34:9 (#186) in September 1997.)
Reviewed by Berni Phillips
Trading places with someone else is a common fantasy theme, popularized in both film and fiction. An author should be wary of treading such common ground unless he has something new to say. Fortunately, Charles de Lint manages to do so in his new novel, Trader.
Max Trader, a luthier by trade and a stable human being by nature, wakes up one day in a strange place. Stranger than the place is the face: it’s not his own, nor is the rest of the body. Before he has a chance to adjust to this, the door to the apartment is assaulted by two very attractive and angry young women.
Tanya and Zeffy are banging on the door, trying to get Tanya’s scumbag boyfriend, Johnny Devlin, to repay the money he borrowed, money they need in order to pay their rent. Poor Max is now living in the body of Devlin, a slimy no-account ladies’ man who wouldn’t know an honest day’s work if it came up and introduced itself to him. Figuring that if he were in Devlin’s body, Devlin must be in his own, Max heads out for his own place. As sure as Max woke up as Johnny, Johnny woke up as Max. But guess what? Johnny doesn’t mind the change and has no desire to change back. With Max’s face and voice, he can benefit from Max’s responsibility and hard work and healthy bank account. Johnny tells him that he is not responsible for the switch. He admits he wanted out of his old life and tells Max that Max must have been willing for the trade to occur.
As we watch a now homeless Max try to survive on the street, de Lint cleverly unwinds the tale and we gradually see how Max could have possibly subconsciously agreed to switch bodies with such a low-life loser. De Lint brings up some interesting questions, such as how much of a learned skill is mental and how much is muscle memory with the body? Can Max get Devlin’s body to do the exacting carving that made Trader Guitars an icon? He also finds himself battling biochemical problems endemic to his new body. Evidently Devlin had a mean temper and suffered from a mild manic depression.
Trader is also an exploration of friendship. As Zeffy says, “The thing with friends is, you’ve got to take the good with the bad — treat them with the same openheartedness as how you want them to treat you. Nobody’s perfect.” Friendship is the strongest thing in Zeffy’s and Tanya’s lives, and it’s what’s most missing from both Johnny’s and Max’s. De Lint handles this so well that Trader is both a relaxing feel-good book and a page-turner. His characters are well-crafted and individuated. The cast of Trader is much larger than listed here, but this would be the never-ending review if I included them all. Let’s just say that this is definitely a book worth checking out.