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”

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Alike in indignity

19th-century Florence
19th-century Florence

Diana Wynne Jones
The Magicians of Caprona
Collins 2002 (1980)

Two families, both
alike in magic, fight till
forced to face real foe.

First things first: I wondered why Diana Wynne Jones had chosen the name Caprona to use in the title of this children’s book. Was it from the Latin caprona ‘forelock’? Or from a type of butterfly? Or perhaps in homage to an island featuring in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot? None of these notions really convinced.

It seems most likely that she borrowed the name from a village in the Arno valley in Tuscany, upriver from Pisa and to the west of Florence. While relatively insignificant now, in the Middle Ages Caprona was of enough importance to feature in Dante’s Inferno when its castle was squabbled over by the opposing armies of Pisa and Florence. In this book the town is besieged by the 20th-century armies of Pisa, Florence and Sienna, city-states all bordering the unfortunate Dukedom of Caprona which, in this alternate world fantasy, retains a mix of medieval and early 20th-century customs and technology, not to mention magic. Continue reading “Alike in indignity”

Magic and mayhem

castle

Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)

Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!

The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later. Continue reading “Magic and mayhem”

Master of his own fates

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea
William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea

Diana Wynne Jones Conrad’s Fate
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2006 (2005)

In the English Alps
Conrad tries to change his fate.
Unsuccessfully.

Conrad’s Fate is a first-person narrative by the eponymous Conrad Tesdinic, a boy who lives in a world where England is geologically still attached to continental Europe, in an alpine town called Stallery dominated by the slightly sinister Stallery Mansion. Ironic, really, when it’s possible that the author may have derived the name via St Allery (of possible French origin, a variant of St Hilaire) from Latin hilaris meaning cheerful: Stallery is anything but a happy place.

Like many a traditional fairytale hero Conrad is thrust into a magical adventure where he has to balance his innate gifts with the usual resourcefulness required of such a hero. These gifts aren’t really identified till the end, but his other talents seem to include getting into trouble.
Continue reading “Master of his own fates”

Intimations of mortality

path

Diana Wynne Jones
The Lives of Christopher Chant
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1988)

This Diana Wynne Jones book has an intriguing title: we are used to The Lives of the Caesars (where more than one person is involved) or, on the other extreme, The Life of Brian (which is about just one person). The Lives of Christopher Chant, on the other hand, reflects the notion that one person can have, like a cat, more than one life. This notion is an old one, from the transmigration of the soul to the Russian folk-villain Koshchei, whose external soul is hidden away in one object enclosed within another, and so on; most recently the concept has become familiar from the Horcruxes within which Harry Potter’s nemesis hides pieces of his soul, but before you surmise that Jones copied Voldemort’s strategy it’s worth pointing out that The Lives of Christopher Chant predates Rowling’s series. Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

Landscapes to walk in

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the model for Cair Paravel?

 

C S Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia
HarperCollins Children’sBooks 2004

seven children’s tales
underpinned by magic, myth
and theology

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Narnia, that magical world reached by various rather devious means, most famously through a wardrobe? The films and, before them, British TV serials, not to mention DVD sales, have widened the audience for the books which, decades after their first publication, still sell by the shelf-full. Aided and abetted by Pauline Baynes’ classic illustrations this collection of the novels in their chronological sequence in a one-volume hardback edition is clearly designed to be enjoyed, kept and treasured. And I intend to keep it and treasure it, but I wasn’t as enraptured by Lewis’ tales as I was led to expect. Continue reading “Landscapes to walk in”

The bourn from which no traveller returns

GB at night

Neil Gaiman Neverwhere:
The Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (1996)

In fairytales the overlooked, usually youngest son or daughter in a family commits an act of kindness that allows him or her to succeed where the other brothers or sisters didn’t. Sometimes the act of kindness is misplaced, as in the Arabian Nights tale of the genie in the bottle, and potential disaster follows. In this fantasy Scotsman Richard Mayhew comes to London and rescues a young woman from her pursuers, as a result of which his life is changed forever. He passes into London Below, supposedly the bourn from which no traveller returns. This is an Otherworld — at times a Dante-esque Inferno, other times reminiscent of Tudor or Restoration London — which has successfully reappeared in various modern guises, in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana (1978) for example, Andrew Sinclair’s Gog (1967) and more recently in Miéville’s fantasies such as Kraken (2010).

Neverwhere‘s strengths largely lie in those fairytale motifs that much good fantasy draws from:  Continue reading “The bourn from which no traveller returns”