The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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Of shreds and patches

Table Mountain or Crug Hywel hillfort, Crickhowell, Wales

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At the southern edge of the Black Mountains in Wales, high above the market town of Crickhowell, sits a hillock called Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. Geologically it is an example of a translational slide, a piece of the Black Mountains that has slipped downhill towards the River Usk before coming to a halt.

On top of Crug Hywel’s plateau sits an Iron Age hillfort, named after some forgotten historical or legendary figure called Howell.

The feature is, in effect, Howl’s Moving Castle.


I don’t for a moment believe that the author had this ancient hillfort as a model for the titular castle, nor do I even suggest she was aware of the coincidence of name, only that I’m sure she would’ve been delighted with this parallel. Because, as the Q&A extra at the end of this edition shows, the genesis and composition of a novel such as Howl’s Moving Castle is made up of bits and pieces of her own family life, chance encounters, unconscious jokes, past memories, and so on. As Nanki-Poo in The Mikado sings,

A wandering minstrel I, | A thing of shreds and patches, | Of ballads, songs and snatches, | And dreamy lullaby…

Shreds and patches typify the make-up of this fantasy, and of many of the characters in it (in particular the Howl of the title); but what holds it all together — as in all good stories — is heart, both literally and metaphorically. And though some of the stitching is evident in the writing we forgive the imperfections because the whole is just so enchanting.

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Wild magics

Still from Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle

The first March Magics event (then called DWJ March) was inaugurated by Kristen of We Be Reading in March 2012 to celebrate the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011). This year’s March Magics has as its featured DWJ book Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps her most famous title and the subject of a delightful Studio Ghibli animation.

For any followers of this blog unfamiliar with DWJ’s work (and a few days before I post my second review of this fantasy, on the anniversary of her death, the 26th March) you may find the following links, to my reviews of other titles, helpful in deciding which of her fictions might appeal to you.

Let’s start with the series loosely associated with that peregrinating edifice.

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Riches well told

Wizard by Chris Riddell, Waterstone’s bookshop, Cardiff

This preview post is to flag up two of the books I shall be reviewing for March Magics, the book event founded by Kristen Meston of We Be Reading to highlight the work of Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.

In a couple of days I will be looking at the third in the Tiffany Aching series, Wintersmith. I’ve already drawn attention to this in a post, but you may possibly feel inclined to also look at my reviews of the first two books: The Wee Free Men and A Hat full of Sky.

Later in the month—on the anniversary of her death, the 26th—I shall be returning to Diana Wynne Jones’ land of Ingary by re-reviewing her most famous title, Howl’s Moving Castle. An earlier review appeared here, but a recent reread (and my usual mental meanderings) have encouraged me to think further on this: and an episode in Wales means this also counts as an entry for the Wales Readathon, Dewithon. (There were two sequels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. And I’ll be posting an overview of Diana’s fiction later in the month.)

If you haven’t discovered either or both of these authors you might do worse than made a foray into their works this month (and maybe glance at my links) . . .

Winter Thing

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Hunters in the Snow (Winter)

Another waffly post, I’m afraid, but at least it’s mercifully short.

I’ve been diverting myself with a quick dip into Terry Pratchett (in a manner of speaking) in anticipation of March Magics; this last, hosted annually by Kristen of We Be Reading, is a respectful celebration of the work of Pratchett and of Diana Wynne Jones who both died during this month in, respectively, 2015 (March 12th) and 2011 (March 26th).

Now I didn’t mean to, but I found myself picking up the third Tiffany Aching book, Wintersmith, even though I’d intended to leave it till next month. It must have been due to the promised snowful in Britain — unlike North America’s recent dreadful polar vortex and a less deadly dump in much of Britain, the white stuff forecast for my part of Wales turned out however to be a bit of a damp squib.

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Good to go

Framework

Another year starts, and we’re all encouraged to plan ahead… Well, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I don’t have targets. I don’t set challenges.

What I have instead are goals: something to generally aim for but no pressure other than satisfaction at reaching them or even making the initial effort.

A better metaphor might be a framework: something that provides shape but the cladding for which is more random and the amount of cover more arbitrary. Imagine a big wide open goalmouth, the posts set wide apart and the crosspiece high, the netting a patchwork of different materials and loosely spread over. It’s pleasing to get the ball in the net but, heaven forfend, I’ve never had dreams of being a Premiership player…

So, Reading Goals. (No, not Reading Gaol, that was Oscar Wilde.)

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Magic? It’s mostly ideas

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1502-1555). Fitzwilliam Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones: A Sudden Wild Magic
Avon Books 1994 (1992)

Magic is mostly ideas — they’re the strongest thing there is!
— Gladys, X/2

The fantasies of Diana Wynne Jones are the epitome of wild magic, as other commentators have previously noted. You can guess what ‘wild magic’ is — uncontrolled flights of powerful fancy spiralling off in unexpected directions, or some such will-o’-the-wisp definition — and virtually every writing of this much missed author is replete with it. A novel entitled A Sudden Wild Magic is naturally going to include rather a lot of it.

The novel’s premise is easily summarised. A neighbouring universe has been harvesting ideas and inventions from our world without our knowledge — not such a fantastic notion these days — but has also been experimentally interfering with our lives, introducing global warming and epidemics for example to see how we cope with disasters on this scale. A UK-based group of magical guardians decide to infiltrate a crack team of female adepts, their mission being to disrupt this covert action conducted by male mages by introducing magical viruses; the novel switches back and forth from Earth to this parallel world as it follows the ups and downs of this team and those monitoring progress. Being a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy things are not always as they seem, however.

It’s almost pointless to outline the intricacies of the plot narrative in a straightforward review: there is so much going on, so many strands, such a varied cast, so many distinctive individuals. It’s a novel of its time, of course: issues current in the 1990s have assumed different perspectives a quarter of a century later — AIDS-HIV and global warming, for example — and we might baulk at their semi-humorous treatment both from a retrospective viewpoint and because they are matters warranting serious consideration. But it can be argued that humour used as a means of drawing attention to the misuse of power — from issues concerning exploitation and gender to technology used irresponsibly and child abuse — deserves its place in fiction.

Instead then of discussing the narrative’s twists and turns, I want here to indicate some of the ways the author’s own wild magic operates, how she takes ideas from here and there and allows them to follow their own courses.

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