Urban gorilla war

Christmas Steps, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

[After Fire and Hemlock] I then started, immediately, to write Archer’s Goon. Just picked up a fresh block of paper and began. Now those of you who have read this book will know that it hinges on a man called Quentin Sykes discovering a newborn baby in the snow. I had just started the second draft of this book when my eccentric Sussex friend went for a walk in the middle of a winter’s night and discovered a baby. It is all very well my books coming true on me—it is a risk I take—but when this starts rubbing off on other people it is no joke.

Diana Wynne Jones, ‘A Whirlwind Tour of Australia’

Most if not all authors include bits of themselves, their lives, their family and friends in their novels, and that’s what often adds authenticity to their narratives and a sense of verisimilitude. That applies as much—if not more so—to fantasy as to contemporary fiction, but if authors find true life imitating fiction it can be disconcerting, to say the least.

Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Archer’s Goon (1984) has so much busy-ness about it that, outside a spoiler-free review, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps a discussion of its physical setting would be a good starting point, because after that the characters and the themes can be placed like pieces and moves on a gameboard.

The author spent a good many decades in the English town of Bristol until her death in 2011 and this novel, like a few other novels of hers — such as Deep Secret (1997), The Homeward Bounders (1981) and Fire and Hemlock (1985) — features aspect of Bristol in its topography and placenames. As it happens, she has borrowed a good many street names for her unnamed town which, as an ex-Bristolian myself, I have walked and know well. So the first part of this spoiler-filled post will start with places, and then I shall go on to discuss a little (or maybe a lot) about people and themes. The curious names encountered — Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus — refer to seven sibling magicians whose names will crop up later in the discussion. I shall also be mentioning Howard Sykes and his sister Awful — real name Anthea — who play central roles in most of the action when drawn into conflict with the enchanters.

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Once and Future

There and Back Again Lane, Clifton, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

Archer’s Goon
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1984).

Written and published during the Reagan-Thatcher years, when it felt as though some of the world at least was taking a dangerous lurch towards an confrontational and authoritarian triumphalism, Archer’s Goon explores some of that state of affairs in what presents merely as children’s fantasy.

It’s 1983, and the Sykes family find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy of squabbling siblings who plan to ‘farm’ the world; can Quentin Sykes, the father and a struggling author, stand up against the malevolent forces who besiege the family house and seek to use the power of the written word for nefarious purposes?

Or is the situation more complex than at first appears, and will the Sykes’ household of parents, son, daughter and student lodger each find they have a role to play, where their decisions and actions have unexpected consequences and their relationships be revealed as contrary to appearances?

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Many avenues to explore

hemlock

Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Mammoth 1990 (1985)

Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.

The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.

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April Rainers

© C A Lovegrove

Hexwood
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins 2000 (1993)

Here’s another twisty plot from the girl Jones, somewhat similar to wandering around a curiously managed patch of spring woodland. One thing I have learned about rereading Diana Wynne Jones novels is that, whatever my first impressions were, future revisits will inevitably reveal that I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time around. Or even the second time.

In this fantasy, for example, much is made of the sense of déjà-vu experienced by principal characters, emphasising that this or that memory will always prove more or less elusive the more one tries to examine it. And so it proved with my reread — I kept having to turn back pages to check if and when something familiar seemed to turn up, and not always being successful.

In fact, then, Hexwood appears to be a kind of metaphor or indeed metafiction for the experiences a reader has when visiting the author’s novels for the first or, indeed, the nth time, highly apt then for a fiction which doggedly explores the unreliability of time perception.

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Life in the realms of death

Imogen as Fidele, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (Wikimedia)

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)

Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.

As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.

For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.

So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.

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Master of mischief

Diana Wynne Jones:
Eight Days of Luke
Illustrated by David Wyatt
Collins 2000 (1975)

Feeling grateful. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry when you’re wrongly accused. Feeling frustrated when your wishes are thwarted. Being a child under the charge of adults gives rise to so many emotions, some negative, many persisting into adulthood. For orphan David Allard, whom if we had to guess is about ten or so, emotions are running particularly high: the relatives he is now living with are unsympathetic to the point of unfairness and he is just about to explode.

Retreating to the end of the garden he expresses his anger in a torrent of gibberish words. Somehow this ‘spell’ coincides with what appears to be a mini earthquake, which causes the garden wall to tumble down and venomous snakes to appear. And from nowhere up pops a boy with reddish hair, who calls himself Luke.

After the initial shock David is of course very confused, but the personable Luke seems promising as a new companion for the luckless lad so they strike up a friendship, with Luke expressing sincere gratitude at being freed from his prison. But this odd occurrence is merely a prelude to a week of strange occurrences in which new acquaintances are made and the master of mischief himself is unmasked.

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Beating the Bounds

Physics building, Royal Fort House and Gardens, Bristol (photo: Ben Mills)

Even if your patience hasn’t worn too thin you may nevertheless be glad I’m planning to make this a last discussion post about Diana Wynne Jones’s novel The Homeward Bounders (1981).

If you’ve arrived new to the wider discussion, my review of the fantasy is here, some observations about the author’s intentions here, and possible links with another novel, Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, can be found here.

But (as usual) my thoughts may well be rather too eclectic, so I humbly apologise if my speculations prove a tad over-enthusiastic. If you’ve read the novel you may more easily follow my line of argument; if not then just enjoy the ride! (But beware, there are massive spoilers.)

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Unbound

Titian’s Prometheus (Prado, Madrid)

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Homeward Bounders
Illustrated by David Wyatt
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1981)

“Are you one? Do you call us Homeward Bounders too?”
“That is the name to all of us is given,” he said to me sadly.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought I’d made it up.”

Jamie Hamilton is twelve going on thirteen, living in a past which we can establish is 1879. But when, in exploring his town, he comes across a mysterious building where cloaked and hooded figures flit about his curiosity get the better of him and, by intruding on them, he becomes an outcast from the life with which he has grown familiar.

And it is all the doing of Them, as he soon terms those figures, games players who decide the fates of individuals, societies and worlds. As a ‘discard’ from the game They play he is forced to be both bystander and wanderer as he is thrown from one world to another without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

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Getting into difficulties

Statue outside Old Library, Cardiff

Fellow literary blogger, tweeter and teacher Ben Harris recently expressed slight dismay at Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘difficult’ novel The Homeward Bounders, first published in 1981 early on in her writing career.

Coincidentally I had been ruminating about which DWJ book to read (or, rather, reread, as bar a handful of titles I’ve read virtually all her works) for Kristen’s annual blogging event March Magics. This novel, then, seemed as good a book to tackle as it’s one of a few of her titles I haven’t yet reviewed.

So this post is by way of an introduction to a second reading, a post in which I’ll mostly be making use of clues from Jones’ own words. These will be from the collection of her non-fiction writings in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (David Fickling Books / Greenwillow Books 2012) published the year after her death on 26th March 2011.

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 6: Cart and Cwidder

Cart and Cwidder HarperCollins UK edition 2016

When their father, a travelling minstrel is killed, three children involved in rebellion and intrigues inherit a lute-like cwidder with more than musical powers.
— From the first edition of Cart and Cwidder, Macmillan 1975

You’ll by now be aware that Witch Week takes its title from a novel of the same name, ostensibly for children, by Diana Wynne Jones, who died in 2011. So it seemed apt to have as this year’s novel for discussion Cart & Cwidder, the first volume in a fantasy quartet set in a polity called Dalemark. In fact the very first Witch Week featured The Spellcoats, another Dalemark novel in which the principal villain is actually identified.

Three of us have had a detailed online chat about this — an edited version is offered below — but a number of you have also taken up the challenge of reading it beforehand so that you could join in today’s conversation, and you are very welcome to add your comments below. The participants in the online chat were Laurie Welch (red), Chris Lovegrove (green), and Lizzie Ross (blue). Our comments coalesced around topics such as magic, historical setting, bildungsromans, zeitgeist, and of course villains!

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 5: Sinister Relations

Jean Lee is a blogger, author and massive fan of Diana Wynne Jones.

Jean was an obvious choice, therefore, for inviting to participate in this event as one of DWJ’s books was the principal inspiration for it, and we’re very grateful she responded so enthusiastically!

She has chosen to focus on one of Jones’ most sinister figures, Aunt Maria from Black Maria (1991), published as Aunt Maria in North America.


Firstly, dear readers, I am honored to be here with you during this most magical Witch Week. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite writers for many reasons: her arduous childhood, her steel resolve, her motherly devotion, and her bottomless love for sharing the gift of storytelling with others. While others wrote what she called “Real Books,” books that described real-ish kids in real-ish situations going through all the real-ish problems that kids deal with in real life, Jones stood firm on the position that Real Problems can be solved with Unreal Books. The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a lovely example of a blended family coming together when a magical chemistry set forever alters the “chemistry” of their lives (ba dum CH!). Indeed, Jones has never been one to shy away from the tough conflicts that can arise inside the family unit. Heavens, in Charmed Life Gwendolyn doesn’t just kill her own parents but her kid brother Cat, multiple times. Divorce, too, impacts characters such as young Polly in Fire and Hemlock, and Mig in Black Maria. Polly and Mig both learn who truly cherishes family … and who doesn’t.

Which brings us to the sweet old lady that is Aunt Maria.

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Unwelcome guests

Diana Wynne Jones:
Stopping for a Spell
Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)

I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.

“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.

— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’

Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.

At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.

I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.

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Music, magic and maturity

Trees

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1:
Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet
Eos 2005

There is sometimes an assumption that if a novel’s protagonists are youngsters then the novel can only be for other youngsters to read. This is not always the case, and for me many of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘young adult’ stories can and ought to be enjoyed by youngsters of all ages, reasoning which prompts me to resist tagging this volume as ‘children’ or ‘YA’.

It is also sometimes assumed that fantasy is a lesser genre than more mainstream novels. I don’t accept that needs to be so, and the author herself has made clear that to dismiss fantasy as escapist is a mistaken attitude (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-bd). The best fantasy has as much to say about the human condition as more literary examples, and Jones’ fantasy mostly falls into this category. Add to that the fact that Jones attended lectures by Tolkien himself at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be taken seriously.

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Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

Good things come in threes

Snettisham torc, Norfolk, 1st century BCE (image: Johnbod, Wikimedia Commons, slightly edited)

Diana Wynne Jones: Power of Three
Harper Trophy 2003 (1976)

Another wonderful offering from the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three is an early-ish fantasy but one which displays all her trademark tics: a tricksy plot with an ending which has you rereading the last few pages wondering what has just happened (and how), a self-doubting protagonist with talents largely hidden from them, and a narrative that — while riffing on traditional themes, tropes and traditions — still manages to read as a one-off original.

We begin the novel assuming this is high fantasy: a seeming pastoral medieval community that is also au fait with magic, with some individuals able to divine the future, find distant objects and gifted with the power of suggestion. As we delve further we realise that it’s quickly morphing into so-called low fantasy with the modern age beginning to impinge, first at the fringes and then at the centre.

Underlying this is the growing sense of triadic groupings, as suggested by the book’s title: three siblings; Three Impossible Tasks, in the best fairytale tradition; three peoples (humans, the Dorig and the Giants); three powers (the Sun, the Moon and the Earth); and over all these, the Old Power, the Middle and the New. It all makes for a heady concoction, with a twist about a third of the way in.

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