Set in a bizarre Britain

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Diana Wynne Jones The Merlin Conspiracy
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2004 (2003)
No 2 in The Magids mini-series

Until I first read this in 2004 my only previous acquaintance with Diana Wynne Jones was through her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Vista 1996), a thoroughly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek encyclopaedic tour of the conventions of post-Tolkien fantasy writing. This outing for the much-published children’s writer includes much of that irreverent humour (we meet an elephant called Mini and a coffee-addicted SF-detective writer called Maxwell Hyde, for example, whose name seems to be a compound of a well-known instant coffee brand and a literary split personality). And it all starts with the title, which is about a conspiracy concerning the Merlin.

From this we gather that the main setting for the plot is not Earth as we know it but an alternative world in a fictional multiverse. Nick Malory, supposedly originating from ‘our’ world, is eventually propelled into this other Britain which goes by the name of Blest; Blest is a rather apt name, not only for its Otherworld echoes in Greek and Celtic mythology but also because many of its denizens are witches and others adept at natural magic (such as the story’s other principal protagonist, Arianrhod). The conspiracy involves the replacement of ‘the Merlin’ — chief wizard of the country of Logres, England in our world — with a false Merlin. Naturally this has repercussions on Blest, its wider world and on parallel worlds. Oh, and did I mention time-travel as well?

Right up to its apocalyptic conclusion this is a very readable novel, despite its convoluted plot, and one you may well get through in very few sittings. For those with a penchant for legends a lot of the fun comes from spotting both the overt and subtler Arthurian references, along with undertones of William Blake and others. Then perhaps it’ll be time to search out those other titles of hers — such as Deep Secret, this book’s prequel in the Magids mini-series, or her posthumous The Islands of Chaldea, set in another bizarre Britain the equal of the Isles of the Blest.

  • March is remembered by Jones fans every year as an occasion to celebrate her work in the month of her death. DWJMarch (the brainchild of Kristen of the We Be Reading blog) — has now been expanded  to include Terry Pratchett and has therefore morphed into March Magics! This then is a DWJ taster in case I don’t get round to (re)reading one of her novels in March. By the way, this is an edited repost of an online review I did a few years ago for LibraryThing and Goodreads, adapted from a journal review I did around ten years or so ago

Topographical diversions

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887
Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887 showing the heel and toe of Italy; east is at the top of the map

Of course, books aren’t the only things that we can read. Anything with written or printed words count, naturally, but if you are musically literate you’ll also be familiar with notation, the ‘dots’ that singers and instrumentalists can transform into sounds as much as letters do for speech. And there’s more. There are maps.

I love maps. I love the virtual reality they offer for those who like wandering around landscapes or streets, for the bird’s eye view one can gain of an environment.

Now I know that not everyone gets on with maps. It’s occasionally said that dyslexics can have especial difficulties — our son has some dyslexia and so prefers to use satnavs for road journeys, for example — though this seems to be a problem to do with spatial thinking, with creating a mental picture of that space, a cognitive map. Topographical Disorder or Disorientation may be the wrong diagnosis here, because that condition appears to result from some damage to the brain. Maybe it’s more to do with easily confusing left and right, which many if not most of us experience to a greater or lesser degree.

But I digress. Continue reading “Topographical diversions”

Twists in the tales

"Veneto 0006" by Bartolomeo Veneto - Laura Pagnotta: Bartolomeo Veneto, l'opera completa, Firenze : Centro Di, 1997, ISBN 88-7038-316-4Bound. - Contains notes, bibliography and indices. - First catalogue raisonné of the complete works of Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1481-1531). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of a man with labyrinth design on his chest, by Bartolomeo Veneto, Italy, early 16th century. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones editor
Hidden Turnings
Douglas Hill, Tanith Lee, Robert Westall, Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle, Diana Wynne Jones, Mary Rayner, Geraldine Harris, Helen Cresswell, Emma Ball, Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett
Teens Mandarin 1990 (1989)

When, in the late eighties, Diana Wynne Jones was asked to choose authors for a short story collection the only stipulation was for twelve tales “to do with the imagination”. When the submissions came in the main theme they all shared was “hidden turnings of the mind” where the reader is led into “remarkable new places”, an aspect which easily suggested a title for the collection. The sad fact is that, of the twelve authors, half have since gone round their own hidden turnings: Robert Westall (1993), Roger Zelazny (1995), Helen Cresswell (2005), Douglas Hill (2007), Diana Wynne Jones herself (2011) and, most recently, Terry Pratchett (2015). How lovely though to have such an assemblage of writers, all authors whom the editor tells us she loved to read herself: “the people who keep me on the edge of my seat, or awake all night, or gently chuckling — or all these things — people who I think write really well.” The collection, then, sounds very promising.

Continue reading “Twists in the tales”

When magic’s misused

towers

Diana Wynne Jones The Pinhoe Egg
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (2006)

The last of the Chrestomanci books written by Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg was also the longest and, arguably, the most complicated in terms of plot. Unlike some of the novels preceding it Chrestomanci doesn’t just have a walk-on part at the end but takes on the most integrated role in proceedings since Charmed Life, the very first Chrestomanci story of all. The story actually centres on young Eric ‘Cat’ Chant, who lives at Chrestomanci Castle near Helm St Mary, and his contemporary Marianne Pinhoe, who lives about ten miles away in Ulverscote. Marianne’s grandmother appears to lose her mind in a blast of magic — did I mention this is a fantasy? — and poor Marianne’s long-anticipated summer holidays start to disappear over the horizon as her extended family gets drawn into a feud with a neighbouring village. Not only this but her family also fear the attention of Chrestomanci, the ‘Big Man’ at the Castle, whose job is to monitor any misuse of magic. And it turns out a whole lot of misuse of magic is going on.

Continue reading “When magic’s misused”

Fun is a serious business

zodiac-woodcut

Diana Wynne Jones Mixed Magics Collins 2000

Publishers and booksellers think they know their market when it comes to the fantasy novels of Diana Wynne Jones and her ilk: young readers aged 9 to 12 or, at a pinch, young adult or teens for her more ‘difficult’ novels. This despite the fact that her fans range upwards in age to other adult fantasy writers, filmmakers, academics (and not just in the literary field — I knew a professor of sociology who rated her highly as a writer) and, of course, bloggers of all ages. Those who treat books merely as commodities — and there’s no denying that the publishing business exists to be commercially successful — often fail to recognise the reach of an author’s readership except when (as, say, with Philip Pullman and J K Rowling) it becomes as plain as the noses on their faces; they then respond with ‘adult’ editions, which sport less garish covers to go on genre shelves — or even under General Fiction — and receive notices in the review sections of broadsheet newspapers.

This long preamble (and it gets longer, I’m afraid) is a prelude to lauding this collection of light fiction, Continue reading “Fun is a serious business”

Three collections, three mini-reviews

dragon
Life-size (?) dragon outside bedroom window, Miskin Manor, Cardiff

Here is a trio of mini-reviews of collections of short stories, novels and a novella. The idea is to whet your appetite for fuller reviews which I am planning over the months ahead of individual books in the two quartets focused on Earthsea and on Sally Lockheart, as well as the novella in Unexpected Magic.

Continue reading “Three collections, three mini-reviews”

School for sorcery

Entrance
Former Court House, Congresbury, North Somerset

Diana Wynne Jones Witch Week
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1982)

a parallel world
where they persecute witches
and children aren’t safe

Witch Week was the first Chrestomanci books to focus solely on a female protagonist’s point of view, and is much the better for that. It feels as though Diana Wynne Jones has included a lot of autobiographical material in her treatment of Nan, an orphan witch girl who is at Larwood House, a boarding school in Hertfordshire. Nan is much more of a rounded character than the young male leads in previous books in the sequence, Christopher, Cat and Conrad, who sometimes come across as pleasant wimps or clueless actors in the unfolding story. True, Nan is largely pleasant and clueless in her attempt to discover the truth about the magic that is happening around her, but I get more of a sense of a real person here than the ciphers that are Christopher, Cat and Conrad.

The premise of the story is that Nan and her classmates exist in a world where witchcraft is punishable by death but where magic undeniably exists. Continue reading “School for sorcery”