Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Who: Andrea K Höst, the talented self-published writer of awesome Sci Fi and Fantasy novels. Her books – like The Touchstone Trilogy – have been receiving nothing but praise.
Recent Work: And All the Stars, a fantastic, unique SciFi novel that is one of Ana’s Notable Reads of 2012.
We are delighted to host Andrea today with this FABULOUS guide to the amazing Diana Wynne Jones.
A Rough Guide to Diana Wynne Jones
It’s no easy thing to describe Diana Wynne Jones’ work to someone who has never read her, but three qualities spring to mind.
Worlds that are mad and unexpected and strange and original and lovely.
People that are familiar and real.
Stories that are Right.
A cat with a previous identity as a musical instrument. Arthurian time-twisting thanks to aliens. A family who ‘farms’ human endeavour. The most evil grandmother in town. A dog-shaped sun. A castle which wanders. Jones’ work is filled with peculiarities, delivered with such quiet aplomb that they seem almost ordinary. And her plots can become a circus act of plate-spinning – all these disparate things happening at once, but instead of the plates falling, they fuse into a fantastic whole, where everything fits just so, and it all makes the most glorious sense.
Before I dive into talking about all of the books, I must mention the Seven Stories Collection, which has online an index of the archive of DWJ’s papers – from childhood writing and poetry onward. Part of this includes a selection of 60 scanned highlight documents (including some unpublished work) which you can read online.
Now, down to business. You’ve been told you might like Diana Wynne Jones, and you have no idea where to start…
Howl’s Moving Castle may well be the best-known of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, thanks to the beautiful movie by Miyazaki. The movie diverges rather sharply from the book, so if you’re a fan of the anime, you definitely want to check out the original. The written story has more sisters, less war, and comes together in that delicious all-the-puzzle-pieces way that DWJ is so expert at producing.
For those who have somehow managed to not encounter Howl before, Howl’s Moving Castle is the most outright romantic of DWJ’s books (just outpacing Fire and Hemlock and Everard’s Ride, in my opinion) and revolves around Sophie Hatter who, as eldest child, feels she is fated to fail. But then the evil wizard Howl’s moving castle appears in the neighbourhood, and a very angry witch inflicts a surprisingly freeing curse on Sophie.
Howl and Sophie appear as support characters in two more stories. Castle in the Air, an Aladdin-style delving into issues with genies, and then House of Many Ways, where over-proud Charmain and over-confident Peter try to manage a house as straightforward as an Escher drawing.
I tend to think of the first Magid book, Deep Secret, as “the one where Neil Gaiman is a character”, which is perhaps over-stating the case, but is not entirely wrong. Magids are a kind of guardian of secrets and of order in a multi-verse structure. The recent death of a Magid on Earth means that the most-junior Magid, a computer programmer named Rupert Venables, needs to find a replacement. His decision to vet his candidates at a science fiction convention at least means no-one gets too fussed when the centaur shows up.
Deep Secret is one of the few Diana Wynne Jones novels with adult protagonists. The sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy, brings the age of the protagonists back down to mid-teens, and is set in an alternate-England where the King constantly roams about in a mobile court. A conspiracy revolving around the Court position of Merlin leads Roddy Hyde to use a spell to call for expert help, which gives her Nick – a boy who wants to be a Magid.
Both of these are lovely books, and The Merlin Conspiracy is particularly recommended for Romanov, the island, and the elephant.
If any of Diana Wynne Jones’ books could be called ‘traditional fantasy’, the Dalemark Quartet comes closest. Set in a pre-industrial land (which for some reason I always think of as “Celtic” even though there’s little actual resemblance, and the initial characters are said to be modelled on Native Americans) it follows the formation of Dalemark, and the continuing threat of a mage intent on conquer.
Like the Chrestomanci books, you have a choice to read them in order of publication, or in internal chronological order as follows:
The Spellcoats (1979)
Drowned Ammet (1977)
Cart and Cwidder (1975)
The Crown of Dalemark (1993)
The feel of these books is difficult to describe, but if you take a little of The Dark is Rising, add some Chronicles of Prydain, dose it thoroughly with concentrated myth, and focus it on families, you might begin to get a taste of what you’re in for.
Essential reading for any high fantasy writer is The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which is basically TV Tropes for epic novels. This immensely funny guide provides a highly recognisable setting:
“Fantasyland is all the country on the MAP, usually a whole continent complete with OFFSHORE ISLANDS, and sometimes including also the OTHER CONTINENT, when this lies near enough to be reached either by Slave GALLEY or on Dragonback. There is plenty of room in it for numerous COUNTRIES, for much space to have been laid waste by earlier WIZARDS’ Wars, and for still more space to be emptied by the shrinking of the VESTIGIAL EMPIRE. The WEATHER in both these emptied spaces is likely to be peculiar. The Management of course reserves the right to alter the shape and name of the continent at will and to move MOUNTAINS about whenever necessary.”
The conceit of this humorous guide – where a mysterious Management hires locals to run tours of other-world customers through the required encounters with bandits and leathery-winged avians, minor and major minions until they finally meet and defeat the Dark Lord himself – shifts from concept to fully-realised world in the Dark Lord of Derkholm, where the unwilling Wizard Derk has been nominated as this year’s Dark Lord, and brings his highly unusual family (two human children, five griffin children) to bear on the problem.
The sequel, Year of the Griffin, focuses on one of those griffin children, some years after the tours have stopped, when she decides to attend the Wizards’ University.
These are both fun books, though I must admit that Derk occasionally gives me the shudders with his attitude toward creating ‘unusual’ children. I keep picturing his farm as The Island of Doctor Moreau if Moreau was a thoroughly well-meaning chap.
Chrestomanci is a title, a position given to a nine-lived enchanter whose role it is to police the use and misuse of magic in a series of parallel worlds. The focus of most of the stories is not-quite-Britain, where magic is an everyday part of life, and Chrestomanci the spanner in the works of many a scheme for riches and power. The stories focus mainly on children ages ten to twelve, and are replete with humour, frustration, rebellion, and wrongs done in ignorance (romance is witnessed by the younger characters rather than a primary driver of the plots). They are a fizzing mix of adventure and the sticky moralities of magic, and while firmly aimed at younger readers, are the kind of timeless adventure I’ll be enjoying at ninety.
Chrestomanci appears in a series of six novels and four short stories which can be read as stand-alone, either in publication order (which starts with Cat Chant in Charmed Life and later goes back to explore Christopher) or in internal chronological order as follows:
The Lives of Christopher Chant: Christopher starts this story very young indeed, at an age where children can be almost blindly obedient. He is well-mannered, unhappy, and immensely alone. Add an enormous amount of natural power and a very unscrupulous uncle to the mix and by the time Christopher is twelve it will take enormous determination to undo all the wrongs he’s left in his wake.
Conrad’s Fate: Christopher is a secondary character, fifteen years old and hunting a lost friend while assisting – and annoying – Conrad, who is unfortunately doomed to die before the year is out unless he fixes a wrong done in a previous life. Although a whole story in itself, it’s not recommended to read this until after reading The Lives of Christopher Chant – it’s much better when you know who Millie is!
Charmed Life: Eric (Cat) Chant has a truly atrocious sister, Gwendolen, whose ambitions could be nicely summed up as World Domination. Unfortunately Chrestomanci gets in the way of her plans, as she and Cat are taken to live in Chrestomanci Castle – where Christopher Chant is now the Chrestomanci (with a range of spectacular dressing gowns). There’s a wonderful magnificence to Gwendolen’s lack of conscience, and the book is a parade of mischief done with magic.
The Magicians of Caprona: Tonino and Paolo are brothers, members of Casa Montana, one side of a feuding pair of mage families who sing their spells. They encounter the children of Charmed Life, who are in Italy for Summer, and Chrestomanci offers the families advice, but this is a potential Shakespearean tragedy the families will need to solve on their own
Witch Week: In a world where it’s thought a bad thing indeed to be a witch, class routine is turned on its head by a written accusation: “Someone in this class is a witch”. When your class becomes interesting to the Inquisition, a strange spell of ‘Chrestomanci’ may be the only hope. This is a wonderful look at Chrestomanci ‘from the outside’, so to speak, and is also just a hilarious portrait of very different sorts of classroom outcasts, and a pecking order of hopelessness.
The Pinhoe Egg: In the countryside surrounding Chrestomanci Castle there are magic-users aplenty, and they really don’t want an enchanter-policeman looking over their shoulder. By the end of this story I figure Chrestomanci should just give in and rename the castle “Chrestomanci’s School for the Precociously Powerful”.
There are also four short stories, published in various collections, and brought together in Four Tales of Chrestomanci or in the book Mixed Magics.
Warlock at the Wheel begins soon after Charmed Life, in which a warlock steals a car with a bonus child and large dog.
Stealer of Souls occurs soon after The Magicians of Caprona. Tonino – now one of Chrestomanci’s growing collection of powerful mage-children – and Cat Chant are kidnapped and must overcome their natural reticence to survive.
Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream is set some time after Caprona. There’s a real theme in the whole of the Chrestomanci series of exploited children, and while Carol for the most part enjoys her exploitation, the cast of thousands in her head do not.
The Sage of Thear can be slotted in anywhere after Charmed Life, and has a brief appearance by Chrestomanci.
Diana Wynne Jones wrote many stand-alone books, which I’ve grouped into rough age categories of the protagonists. Though don’t let young protagonists hold you back from reading – DWJ’s books are timeless.
A Sudden Wild Magic is a techno-magic romp where a bus full of witches go to battle a space station of wizards. This is a very atypical Diana Wynne Jones novel (with a rather problematic strategy for winning this war), so I’d recommend this as one for the completionists, rather than an entry point for readers.
In Enchanted Glass, Andrew Hope inherits a house and a “field-of-care” from his magician grandfather. Without the foggiest idea of what he’s supposed to do with a field-of-care, Andrew sets about settling in and trying to make do – and to unravel the reason why the stained glass window in the kitchen is so important.
I’ll start with two (unrelated) books which both have a strong thread of romance, both draw a great deal on myth, legend and fairy tale, and both are liable to make your brain dribble out of your ear. Don’t miss reading these, but go in knowing you need to pay attention.
Fire & Hemlock is based on Tam Lin and is one of the contenders for ‘most romantic’ of DWJ’s novels. Many other classic tales are embedded in this twisty narrative where we find it not easy at all to rescue someone from a Faerie Queen.
Hexwood , where existence is a projection and identity blurred, has the most non-linear narrative I’ve ever encountered. It’s one part science fiction and two parts Arthurian, with a dash of suburbia thrown in.
Everard’s Ride is a novella (which can be found in the collection Unexpected Magic) but too good a story not to mention. Alex and Cecilia, living in the Victorian era, encounter a hunted stranger who claims to be from the lands beyond the island across from their house. Soon they’re caught up in uprisings and hunted heirs and pitched battles. A very compelling and exciting story, seriously recommended. [And, to those already fans, did you know this story was one in a series of four! The other three are unpublished, and you can read a handwritten page of one of them in the archive linked above. How are these not published?!]
The Time of the Ghost features four highly neglected sisters (whose circumstances are strongly based on DWJ’s memories of her childhood). Unfortunately, one of these sisters is dead, a ghost – but which one? This is one of the creepiest of DWJ’s books. Word of advice: never make any sacrifices to old dolls you find lying around!
What do you do when you come home to find a goon in your kitchen? And Archer’s Goon is no ordinary tough. Howard, his little sister Awful, and their minder Fifi aren’t going to find him an easy problem to shift.
Archer’s Goon is such a fun, unexpected, twisty story. You definitely don’t end up where you expect when you start the story.
Power of Three draws you into a hidden culture of mound-dwelling people, at odds with shape changing water folk – and both groups doing their best to stay out of sight of the giants which surround their region. This is one of the most fascinatingly alien of DWJ’s books, and a real and unexpected gem often overlooked among DWJ’s better known work. Don’t miss it!
Eight Days of Luke is one for the Loki fans, as David finds his new friend has some very formidable relatives. It’s a short book, and brushes you up against the dense tragedy which is seeded through Norse mythology, enough to taste, but thankfully not so much to choke on those ancient griefs.
A Tale of Time City takes a London evacuee from 1939 and dumps her in a futuristic nexus world. When casting about for a good book to compare this to, it occurred to me that this hits some of the same notes as early Harry Potter, if Harry had been a girl, and science and time travel replaced magic. Of course there are many more differences than similarities – it’s not set in a school for a start – but that sensawunda, entertaining food items, and group dynamic is there.
Meanwhile, The Homeward Bounders takes a much darker turn for a person displaced from home. “Homeward Bounders” are people who “They” have put out in the Boundaries of the multiverse, who travel from world to world, always needing to scramble to adapt to a new place – landing in the middle of a war, or a shopping district, and so clearly out of place each time. Jamie is one of many Homeward Bounders, trapped in a cycle of travel which prevents permanent friendships or much needed rest. It’s a cycle he’s determined to escape, but one which it just doesn’t seem possible to stop.
Dogsbody technically shouldn’t sit in ‘pre-teen’, since the protagonist is a sun, but since I didn’t have a “millennial” category, I’ll take his owner Kathleen’s probable age group. Anyone who has ever appreciated a dog should read this because for a ball of flaming gas, Sirius makes a truly excellent dog.
Black Maria is an increasingly wild take on that relative that you only wish you didn’t have:
“We have had Aunt Maria ever since Dad died. If that sounds as if we have the plague, that is what I mean.”
Aunt Maria wields the power of social niceties, with a large glob of magic to add to her authority. But it’s not until Mig’s brother Chris is threatened that Mig finds the strength to fight the iron rod of sweetness.
The Game: Halley has a very large family, but missing parents. Usually home schooled by her grandparents, she finds it less than easy to be packed off to her aunts in Irelands, where an enormous number of relatives await her – and play ‘the game’, where they visit a place called “the mythosphere”. Anyone who knows their mythology can play an excellent game of spot the reference reading this short book.
Two which fit well to the younger end of the pre-teen market are The Ogre Downstairs and Witch’s Business – and both display DWJ’s ability to add some very dark elements into froth and disaster.
How fun it would be to have a chemistry set like the one in The Ogre Downstairs! Something which could allow you to fly, or to bring to life your toffee bars. But the crux of this story is the problem of a stepfather you do not want, do not like, and who really should think through his choice of gifts.
Equally, Witch’s Business/Wilkin’s Tooth, leads Jess and Frank to discover that starting a business called “Own Back Ltd”, promising “revenge arranged” may not be all that brilliant an idea after all.
Bits and Bobs
Along with some stories for very young children, and the short story collections, completionist readers will want to find a copy of:
- DWJ’s first book, Changeover, a non-SFF novel about a small African country preparing for independence from Britain.
- The Skiver’s Guide, a short, humorous book about getting out of work.
- And, most of all, Reflections on the Magic of Writing, which collects DWJ’s essays, addresses and articles – and provides a great deal of insight into the formation of many of her books.
There is also a final book, not quite finished at the time of Diana Wynne Jones’ death, which her sister has undertaken to complete. It is a stand-alone book with no current release date.
Diana Wynne Jones is the only author – indeed, the only person – I have ever written a fan letter to. It was a brief, stifled and rather upset little email, sent when I first heard that she was very ill. I’ve often wished I could have been more eloquent, could have conveyed the debt of imagination I owe to hers. Instead, each year, I buy a copy of one of her books and donate it to a Christmas Gift drive. In this, too, I hope to pass the torch.