A spoof with serious intent

Diana Wynne Jones The Dark Lord Of Derkholm Gollancz 2000 (1998)

comic fantasy
makes valid point: don’t despoil
the lands you visit

griffinAnyone who is part of a large organisation will recognise the quandaries that Wizard Derk finds himself in when he is appointed Dark Lord in a real-life role-playing game. Despite his living in a world where magic is as natural as breathing, his attempts to cope with the vagaries that are thrown at him by an uncaring Senior Management, and which are deliberately sabotaged by Middle Managers with their own agenda, are familiar to those foot-soldiers in this our own world who are forced to cope with one emergency after another caused either by conspiracy or cock-up. And although crisis management is by its nature very stressful, there comes a point where you feel you have neither the energy nor the inclination to carry on with your goodwill sapped and your moral compass thrashed. Continue reading “A spoof with serious intent”

Crisis at the University


Diana Wynne Jones
Year of the Griffin
Gollancz 2003 (2000)

university’s
challenging, no matter what
universe you’re in

Year of the Griffin is set in the same universe as The Dark Lord of Derkholm and their common source The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but, bar a few cross references, works equally well as a standalone. Set eight years after Dark Lord, the story is centred on the young griffin Elda who is in her first year of University. Yes, a student griffin. At a university for wizards. You just know that things aren’t going to be straightforward. Continue reading “Crisis at the University”

Mocking conventions from an armchair

frisland
The legendary island of Friesland, located east of Greenland

Diana Wynne Jones
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Vista 1996

Discover the laws
governing fantasy worlds.
Beware tongues in cheeks.

Helpful tips for travellers to Fantasyland by the late great Diana Wynne Jones, from which I draw a number of conclusions:

(1) Get immunised by reading a wide range of fantasy, both good and bad: you never know what bugs you will be exposed to in Fantasyland.
(2) Remember to have an up-to-date passport: you’ll need either your own unread fantasy novel (preferably with your own bookplate stuck in the front) or a library book with plenty of entry/exit stamps from previous travellers’ visits.
(3) Obtain a visa (a credit card receipt for a fantasy book from your local bookseller will do).
(4) Have the correct currency ready (any bronze, silver or gold coins will do, so long as it makes a nice clinking sound in your purse).
(5) Finally, don’t forget to pack the Tough Guide: you’ll be lost without it. The author has travelled widely in Fantasyland, knows the terrain intimately and generously shares her insights into its attractions, peculiarities, geography and distinct cultures.

Oh, and don’t speak to any strangers down dark alleyways… Continue reading “Mocking conventions from an armchair”

Booking a return to Dalemark

crownDiana Wynne Jones
The Crown Of Dalemark
Dalemark Quartet

Oxford University Press 2003 (1993)

Finale volume | where past and present meet and, | maybe, all’s resolved.

Young Mitt is from South Dalemark, but when he escapes its politics and intrigues he finds that the North is equally dangerous because he is manoeuvred into an assassination attempt on a pretender to the crown of Dalemark. The plot also turns on a present-day girl, Maewen, who gets propelled into Dalemark’s past to play a role not of her own choosing, in a narrative that is reminiscent of the premise in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. And the Crown? That turns out to be not just a metaphor for gaining a throne but also part of a theme that mingles together motifs from modern Tarot imagery and the medieval quest for the Grail. Continue reading “Booking a return to Dalemark”

Deserving of more fantasy fans

knot

Diana Wynne Jones
The Spellcoats
Dalemark Quartet

OUP 2005 (1979)

A young girl, who has little idea that she has a talent for weaving magical spells into garments, has to abandon home along with her orphan siblings when they are all suspected of colluding with invaders with whom they happen to share physical characteristics. Thus begins a journey downriver to the sea and then back again up to its source before the causes of the conflict can start to be addressed.

The Spellcoats has a markedly different feel compared to the middle two Dalemark tales. As well as being set in an earlier period, this story is recounted by the young weaver Tanaqui (an approach unlike that in the other three books which are third-person narratives). We also find that the story is being told through her weaving of the tale into the titular Spellcoats, a wonderful metaphor for how stories are often described as being told. We finally discover (in both an epilogue and in the helpful glossary that is supplied at the end of the book) that the boundaries between myth and factual truth are not as clear-cut as at first seems, a fascinating exercise in the layering of meaning and reality. It’s what might be called metafiction (defined as fiction about fiction, or ‘fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself’), a term which had only been coined in 1970, nine years before The Spellcoats was first published. Continue reading “Deserving of more fantasy fans”

Let children be the judge

tower

Sarah Prineas The Magic Thief
Quercus 2009 (2008)

With a recommendation from Diana Wynne Jones (‘I couldn’t put it down. Wonderful, exciting stuff’) The Magic Thief (the first in a series with the same name and consequently re-titled Stolen) challenges the reader to dare contradict such a distinguished fantasy writer. Bravely, I’m going to try.

Yes, I too couldn’t put it down. Well, actually I did, but only to catch up on some sleep, but at nearly 400 pages that’s to be expected. The action pulled you along, aided by the almost breathless short sentences of both narrative and speech, and the manageable lengths of chapters, around ten pages on average and broken up by illustrations and change of narrator. The vocabulary, despite the odd Latin-influenced term, is expertly aimed at an audience aged around 10 or 11 and that target readership is the best to judge its success.

But this older reader is not so sure it totally succeeds Continue reading “Let children be the judge”

Through tinted specs, colourfully

pane

Diana Wynne Jones Enchanted Glass
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2010

As a boy, he had spent fascinated hours looking at the garden through each differently coloured pane. Depending, you got a rose pink sunset garden, hushed and windless; a stormy orange garden, where it was suddenly autumn; a tropical green garden, where there seemed likely to be parrots and monkeys any second. And so on. As an adult now, Andrew valued that glass even more. Magic apart, it was old old old. The glass had all sorts of internal wrinkles and trapped bubbles, and the long-dead maker had somehow managed to make the colours both intense and misty at once.

When Andrew’s grandfather Jocelyn Brandon Hope dies, Andrew Hope inherits Melstone House and land. However, all is not what it seems — Jocelyn Hope was in fact a magician and the surrounding land is deemed a ‘field of care’, meaning that Andrew has to ‘beat the bounds’ in order to retain its magical power. Andrew’s childhood fondness for Melstone House now becomes complicated by its infusion with magic, especially the strangely coloured glass on an inside door and a counterpart he discovers in the grounds. More confusion reigns with the presence of a stern housekeeper and a stubborn gardener and the arrival of a twelve-year-old orphan called Aidan Cain needing protection from stalkers. Then there is neighbour Mr Brown, who seems intent on trespassing on Andrew’s field of care. Luckily he has an ally in the gardener’s niece Stashe to counteract all the events conspiring against him.

Like many Diana Wynne Jones titles, half the fun of Enchanted Glass for adult readers comes not just in being pulled along by the storytelling but in attempting to read between the lines. Continue reading “Through tinted specs, colourfully”

Haiku summaries | bewitch, befuddle and bug: | serious humour?

gateway

A haiku is a traditional Japanese poem with some aspect of the seasons as a theme. In English it has sometimes, for better or worse, developed beyond the original concept of a seasonal link, and occasionally is found in the form of three lines of up to seventeen syllables in total with no reference to the time of year:

The conceit is this: / five, seven, five syllables? / Summative poem!

The book-cataloguing and social networking site Library Thing has provision in their listings for what they call a ‘haiku summary’ of literary works. I thought I might try to amuse readers (as I may have entertained with the Twitter hashtag #bookcheat) by inviting you to identify books by the following summaries. If you’re stuck, follow the links! Continue reading “Haiku summaries | bewitch, befuddle and bug: | serious humour?”

“It isn’t fair!”

babayaga
Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Diana Wynne Jones Wilkins’ Tooth
Collins Voyager 2002 (1973)
Published 1974 as Witch’s Business in the USA

Is it possible for there to be too many ideas in a novel? Especially in a children’s story of barely two hundred pages? In Diana Wynne Jones’ very first children’s novel images and themes and borrowings and emotions all come out fizzing and popping, like fireworks that one can gasp at while scarcely having time to reflect before the next effect bursts into view.

The book is dedicated to one Jessica Frances, and what better compliment can an author pay to a dedicatee than including them, however obliquely, in the story. Jess and Frank are twins who, bitter at being stopped their pocket money, set up what they hope is a money-making scheme that will simultaneously feed their need for cash while getting a sort of revenge for their economic disempowerment. Jones has written about youngsters’ constant cries of “It isn’t fair!” as not being an adequate response to their situation (Reflections 52-3). A better response, she says, is humour and by the end of the book humour is what wins the day rather than pure revenge, because, as Juvenal in his Satires said, “Revenge is sweet, sweeter than life itself — so say fools.” Continue reading ““It isn’t fair!””

Hayley and the Mythosphere

Halley's Comet, 1910

Diana Wynne Jones The Game Puffin Books 2007

virgoThe concept of the mythosphere is a wonderful thing, typical of Diana Wynne Jones and full of creative potential. It is the place we go to in dreams, the realm of the Collective Unconscious, the landscape where mythical archetypes roam and Jungian symbols are to be encountered, collected and treasured.

Young Hayley gets drawn into the mythosphere when she is sent by her grandparents to stay with relatives in Ireland, who have invented a pastime called The Game where they have to fetch back mythical objects against the clock. However, there are repercussions which not only put her in danger but also reveal who she really is and the nature of her large extended family. A clue comes from her name which, as in many of Jones’ books, has a significance beyond it being a girl’s name chosen at random: it is a closet reference to Edmond Halley who identified the periodicity of the comet that bears his name and whose surname is popularly pronounced as in the girl’s forename. Hayley, like the comet, has the capacity to blaze away in the heavens… Continue reading “Hayley and the Mythosphere”

Beware geeks bearing gifts

laboratory

Diana Wynne Jones The Ogre Downstairs
Harper Collins Children’s Books 2010 (1974)

Caspar, Johnny, and Gwinny’s mother Sally remarries, creating a state of affairs made especially fraught when their new stepfather Jack is both taciturn and strict. But the two stepbrothers – Malcolm and Douglas – help turn sibling rivalry into all-out conflict, compounded by Jack’s gift of two chemistry sets with some very unusual properties, one to one of Sally’s boys and the other to one of his own.

This riff on Jack and the Beanstalk is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ best standalone fantasy titles, dating from 1974. The twists come from the fact that the character of the giant (here nicknamed the Ogre) is “downstairs” and not up the sky as in the fairytale, and that it’s the Ogre whose name is Jack and not the hero of the tale. Continue reading “Beware geeks bearing gifts”

Love potions without number

door

Tom Holt The Portable Door Orbit 2004

Tom Holt is a respected comic fantasy writer, whose only other work I was previously aware of was Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? So I was pleased to have this novel recommended to me, if only to see if Holt’s inventiveness extends just to witty parodic titles like Faust Among Equals, Paint Your Dragon and Grailblazers.

The answer is, it doesn’t. Continue reading “Love potions without number”

Heavenly conjunctions

canis

Diana Wynne Jones Dogsbody Harper Trophy 2001 (1975)

A ‘dogsbody’ is of course a common way of describing a drudge, a Johnny Factotum, the office boy who makes the tea, the hapless school student on work experience. And there is a drudge in this story: Kathleen, who fulfils the role of a Cinderella under the thumb of a surrogate stepmother. But the title of this novel is also the starting point for the notion that a celestial being can inhabit the body of a dog, and that is the main trigger for this story. The most famous celestial body with a canine association is the so-called Dog Star, Sirius, so the question is, how does Sirius come to be incarnated in a puppy just about to be drowned at birth?

I love the way that Diana Wynne Jones novels work: Continue reading “Heavenly conjunctions”

Intimations of mortality

roch-castle-1880

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

At first sight it might seem strange that of all Diana Wynne Jones’ books (a) this should be chosen to make a film of, and (b) perhaps because of (a) this should be one of her best known titles. Why does this story, which she notes was inspired by a chance request by a young fan for a story about a castle that moves, strike such a chord with not just younger readers but also adults? Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

A magic carpet ride

tarot-tower

Diana Wynne Jones Castle in the Air
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1990)

This, the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, begins in an Arabian Nights fashion, which seems light years away from the European land of Ingary. Genies in bottles and flying carpets have nothing to do with a Welsh wizard and a fire demon called Calcifer powering the moving castle, surely? And many of the other distinctive characters in that famous first instalment must be unrelated to the eastern city of Zanzib in the Sultanates of Rashpuht, mustn’t they?

But appearances are deceiving in this parallel world where magic can and does happen. Continue reading “A magic carpet ride”