Thursday, February 28, 2008

D. W. J., part 2

For decades, Diana Wynne Jones has thrilled every age group from "young readers" to adult with her fantasy stories. The worlds she has created are many and varied, and filled with a mind-boggling richness of imagination. But they are also filled with personal warmth, with characters you can relate to, and situations that run the emotional gamut from funny to heartbreaking, from mysterious to terrifying.

Her specialty, it seems, is magic. Her best stories, I think, include some kind of magic, usually a kind that fans of Harry Potter will immediately understand and embrace. Of course her imagination takes her in different directions, and she develops her ideas in her own special way.

Besides her many stand-alone books you will find reviewed in the next post, you may be especially interested in her several series or quartets (some of which are reviewed below), especially if you like "sets" like the Harry Potter books. These include the Dalemark Quartet and the Chrestomanci Chronicles (see previous post).

NOTE: when searching shelves that are arranged alphabetically by author, you will find D. W. J. in the "J" section, under "Jones." In case you wondered.

Howl's Moving Castle
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

Inspired, according to the dedication page, by an idea a child suggested to her when she was visiting a school, this terrific story is the first of a two-book series which continues in Castle in the Air.

It takes place in the magical land of Ingaria, where there are wizards, witches, handsome princes, seven-league boots, and so on. It turns all the fairy tale conventions upside-down, however. For instance, of three pretty daughters of a not-very-well-off hat maker, the oldest (Sophie) believes any attempt on her part to "seek her own fortune" is doomed to failure, by the laws of the world she lives in. But she does not seem to notice the powerful gift that she has, of talking life into inanimate things (like the hats she trims, to begin with). In a way she doesn't even realize, she is a powerful sorceress. And it takes a full-on curse from the wickedest, powerfullest sorceress in the world - the Witch of the Waste - to send her on her way to destiny.

Sophie's destiny involves being turned into a 90-year-old woman, insinuating herself into the moving castle of the notorious wizard Howl as a cleaning woman, and making a bargain with the fire demon who lives in Howl's fireplace. Her side of the bargain is to break the contract between the demon (Calcifer) and the wizard, which is bound to turn out badly for both of them if someone doesn't break it. The problem is, she has to figure out for herself what the contract is. Calcifer's side of the bargain is to return Sophie to her former young, pretty shape.

In the meantime, the Horrible Howl turns out not to be the awful creature of evil she imagined. In fact, he's a vain young dandy who spends most of his time wooing women, then dropping them like blown dandelions the instant they fall in love with him. Most of his magic seems to be done by Calcifer and, when it comes to everyday work that keeps the cash flowing, a teenaged apprentice named Michael Fisher. This sort of bent magical family, then, lives together in a two bedroom, one bathroom house whose door, depending on which way the four-colored doorknob is facing, opens out onto four different places: a street in the posh capital city, another street in a seaside village, a moving castle that floats around the hills outside the quaint little town Sophie comes from, and another place that comes as rather a surprise.

As Sophie becomes more of a fixture in the wizard's castle, she becomes more and more involved in his feud with the Witch of the Waste. Part of which curse involves an imaginative use of an actual John Donne poem. Sophie also grows more and more irritated with Howl's philandering ways. Oddly, she accepts being an old lady, sooner than she accepts the difficult and powerful role she has to play in the events that explode around her.

It's another story I don't want to say too much about, because part of the enjoyment is being surprised now and then. It's a fascinating yarn, full of fairy-tale magic, action and adventure, romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Most of all, it is very, very funny. And there's some intriguing mystery in it too, as bits and pieces of the Donne curse unfold, and the final confrontation between good and evil draws near. There's also some good suspense, because it's never quite clear whether Howl is going to end up on the side of good or evil, and on that hangs the happiness, not to mention the lives, of several people.

I think Howl is a wonderful character, and the way true love sneaks up on some people is very entertaining too! Plus, who can say no to a story that contains a scarecrow come to life, a man turned into a dog, a talking horse, a drunk scene, and chapter titles such as "In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime," "In which Sophie blackens Howl's name," and "In which a Royal Wizard catches cold."

Castle in the Air
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The sequel to Howl's Moving Castle is, again, a funny, romantic adventure. You won't be disappointed if you were hoping to see Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, and other favorites from the first book again. But be warned, all is not as it seems, and their entrances into the story line may surprise you.

It begins in the far away land of Zanzib, which is like what they used to call the Orient - a 1001 Arabian Nights kind of place. The hero is a handsome young carpet merchant named Abdullah who daydreams that he was born a prince, was kidnapped, and was raised by the carpet merchant who, in real life, was his father. He also daydreams, among other things, that he falls in love with the most beautiful princess in the world.

One day a mysterious man sells him a magic carpet and the next thing he knows, all his dreams - good and bad - are coming true. And then some. For just when the lovely princess Flower-in-the-Night is about to elope with him, she is abducted by a giant winged djinn right before Abdullah's horrified eyes.

Abdullah, partly to escape Flower-in-the-Night's furious Sultan father and partly to rescue the love of his life, flees from Zanzib and gets tangled up with a genie in a bottle. (I had always thought djinns and genies were the same thing. Shows how much I know.)

What with one thing and another, Abdullah finds himself in the magical land of Ingary, traveling with a scoundrel of a soldier, two cats, a cowardly genie, and a flying carpet that likes to be flattered. And then he goes to visit the Royal Wizard and the excrement really hits the air circulation device.

Once again the happiness of several couples, and the fate of more than one powerful magical being, hinges on what Abdullah does in a castle on a cloud, full of kidnapped princesses, guarded by 200 "angels of the lower air," and controlled by not one but two wicked djinns. With the same old magic and a lot of new magic too, it's more fun for anyone who loved Howl's Moving Castle - including me.

Deep Secret
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 16+

Here's a book that tells an interesting story about how it was written, in addition to the story it tells on the surface. A lot of the magical Sci Fi-Fantasy adventure takes place at a convention for fans, writers, and publishers of Sci Fi and Fantasy. Particularly Fantasy, actually. And in passing it gives you glimpses of writers' minds at work, or at least, writers talking about what they do.

Deep Secret is a big, complicated, involving story - probably best read by an adult - which, like so many of Jones's books, is hard to describe without giving away too much. Most of it is narrated by one Rupert Venables, who by day is a finicky, well-heeled, very proper-British designer of computer games, and who by night (to oversimply a bit) is a Magid, which means... well, you spend half the book finding out what it means, actually.

In short, he is a sort of civil servant, under strict rules and orders from a shadowy "Upper Room," who uses influence and (usually subtle) magic to make sure history stays on its proper course in the worlds under his jurisdiction. Magids are doing the same stuff on an infinite number of worlds, which are sort of like parallel-dimension Earths, only Magids can walk between them if they're very careful. Rupert's department is Earth and the neighboring Koryfonic Empire, which is having a major succession crisis and is tottering on the brink of civil war.

Rupert is the most junior Magid of all, which is why he's stuck with this undesirable assignment, and just as all Hades breaks loose his Magid mentor, Stan, dies and, again as the most junior Magid, it falls to Rupert to find someone to fill the vacancy. What with one thing and another, he ends up pulling the fate-lines of his five candidates so they all end up together at PhantasmaCon, the Fantasy fiction writers/fans/publishers convention.

What follows is a week of pure chaos, in which (as Rupert admits at the end) he makes every mistake that he could possibly make, and probably invents some new ones. Plus the fate-lines he has so expertly drawn together, besides being attached to some really obnoxious people, get tangled up with several other people's who, to his knowledge, should not be involved at all. The result is a scary, dangerous, heart-pounding, romantic, and often very weird chase between several dimensions to save not only the throne of Koryfos, but also several innocent people's lives. The climax is a couple of dramatic magical duels which, in my opinion, confirm Jones as a wizard at creating climactic wizard duels. (For more evidence, see The Magicians of Caprona.)

Besides, you can get emotionally involved with her characters, and their adventures can leave you breathless from suspense and excitement. And she always seems to invent a world with totally unheard-of rules that you come to accept and believe in and understand as the story goes on. I like the way Deep Secret doesn't stop in its tracks and patiently explain things to you, it sort of assumes you understand certain things and carries on while you pick up what you need to know along the way. I guess it's the kind of book that assumes the reader is intelligent, open-minded, and patient enough to wait and find out. But the reward for the extra effort is that you get to enter a fictional world that is so much more realistic for not having improbable signposts conveniently set along the way. I wish I could write stuff like that.

The Merlin Conspiracy
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

Don’t let the title fool you. This story is not set in the age of chivalry. It’s a modern-times, parallel-worlds fantasy, and a sequel (of sorts) to Deep Secret. At least, one of its two narrators will be familiar to those who have read Deep Secret, as will the whole idea of Magids policing the magical boundaries of the multiverse.

Nick Mallory is from Earth but not of Earth. Descended from a line of Emperors in a far distant world, he has abdicated his claim to the throne and lives a quiet life with his “Dad” (actually, his stepfather) who writes fantasy stories. Dad is a fan of a mystery writer named Maxwell Hyde, who is about to give the keynote speech at a mystery writers’ conference—another thing that should remind you of Deep Secret. Only poor Nick, who would really like to be able to visit parallel worlds and learn magic, doesn’t see much of this conference. He is just starting to enjoy himself when he is suddenly whisked to another world and plunged into a whirlwind of magic, intrigue, and danger.

Roddy Hyde is not of or from Earth, but from a parallel world called Blest. Her world, and in particular her version of the British Isles (known as the Isles of Blest), are the balance-point of all the magic in a hundred worlds. And a dreadful conspiracy is afoot to throw that balance off. Only Roddy and her magically-dyslexic friend Grundo know about the conspiracy (besides the people who are in on it), and no one will believe them until... gulp... until it’s too late.

Oh, and by the way, Maxwell Hyde (the mystery writer) is also Roddy’s grandfather (the Magid). So obviously, Nick’s and Roddy’s adventures collide together. Throw in a twisted world where Prayermasters weave spells of religious fanaticism to enslave a miserable populace... an elephant lost in the dark paths between the worlds... a pair of adolescent murderers... a fiendish trade in illegally-imported salamanders... a world-hopping goat... a multitude of magical creatures ranging from the genius of Salisbury to the Welsh Lord of the Dead... a royal court that eternally rolls around the countryside in buses... the most annoying pair of twins in history... and a magical “free operative” who uses his power, greater than that of 20 Magids put together, mostly to avoid his ex-wife... and you have a fantasy story that jumps with brilliant imagery, delicious humor, complex characters, and scintillating magic.

Plus, it has dragons.

Cha-ching! Do I have a sale?

Dark Lord of Derkholm
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

Anyone who enjoys reading thick, meaty Harry Potter books, like The Goblet of Fire or The Order of the Phoenix, should be gratified to know that Diana Wynne Jones has also written a pair of thick, meaty fantasy stories. The first and longer of the two is Dark Lord of Derkholm, and the sequel is Year of the Griffin.

The first story puts a new twist on the classic fantasy adventure. You know, the kind of story where people travel on horse and foot; are attacked by bandits, pirates, winged monsters, ghostly huntsmen, dark elves, fanatical priests, and enemy armies; are put under the spell of a glamorous enchantress; have gods and demons appear to them; learn clues for how to complete their quest from dragons; and finally confront, and defeat, a terrible Dark Lord.

Now suppose that this whole fantasy adventure is a sham put on for vacationing tourists from another world (a world pretty much like ours), where a very stern businessman named Mr. Chesney has somehow got this whole alternate-world of wizards, dragons, priests, bards, and so on, under his thumb. He ruthlessly exploits them and forces them to host these tours, at a great cost in lives, crops, and natural resources, which he very stingily repays, after levying dreadful fines whenever something goes wrong.

Meanwhile, the same little, neat-as-a-pin, smartly dressed, bald man - seemingly the farthest thing from a hideous villain - is also making money on the side selling sham insurance policies to the tourists (Pilgrim Parties, he calls them), accepting blood money to rub out certain "expendable" tourists, taking tribute from the dwarves. AND, when the full extent of his perfidy is finally revealed, Mr. Chesney is also secretly stealing the magic which belongs to the fabric of this world, to use as fuel in his own world.

Basically, the real dark lord in this story is the natty little man in a pin-striped suit. Not exactly according to Fantasy convention, eh?

A different wizard is chosen each year (against his will) to play the role of the Dark Lord. No one wants to do it. No one wants to play any of the roles in this vast, deadly, appalling role-play game. But because of the mysterious power Mr. Chesney has over their world, no one even thinks about trying to put a stop to it. Until now.

Gathered in secrecy, a small group of world leaders decide to plan how to save their world from ecological and sociological disaster: to fend off Mr. Chesney and his Pilgrims. The inner circle goes to inquire of the White Oracle and the Black Oracle, as to what must be done. The White Oracle tells them to make the first person they see after coming out of the temple the Dark Lord for the coming season. The Black Oracle tells them to make the second person they see the wizard guide for the last of the season's 126 tours. Immediately on leaving the Black Oracle, they meet a father and son coming out of the White Oracle - Wizard Derk of Derkholm and his small-for-his-age, 14-year-old son Blade.

So that's settled, then. The year's Dark Lord is a not-very-highly-regarded wizard, who never did very well at the Wizard University and hasn't participated much in the magical community. Their last tour guide is to be a boy with some raw magical talent, but whose father is fighting to keep him from going to the University he hated so much.

Derk is infuriated to be chosen as Dark Lord. No one hates the tours more than he; he considers them a blight on his world and a disgrace to the wizard magic that has kowtowed to them his whole life. He hated the university because the magical establishment frowned on research and innovation, and instead emphasized practical magic that would come in useful for the tours.

Derk specializes in experimental bio-magic. He excels in magically engineering new creatures. He has flying pigs, flying and talking horses, super-intelligent geese, invisible cats, carnivorous sheep, miniature flying monkeys, intelligent dogs (born with wings that fall off when they are weaned), and friendly cows (bred for stupidity, because he originally wanted them as food for the other animals). He also has a green thumb, growing roasted-on-the-bush coffee beans, man-eating orchids, vinyl plants, bread plants, and heaven knows what else.

But the pride of his collection are five griffins - basically, giant eagles that have the hindquarters of lions and the intelligence of humans - whom he and his wife, Wizard Mara, consider to be their own children every bit as much as their two human children, Blade and the beautiful bard Shona. The griffins are warlike Kit, artistic Callette, gentle Don, gourmet-chef Lydda, and talkative Elda, the baby of the family.

So Derk, who specializes in life magic and isn't very powerful in conventional magical ways, is supposed to be the Dark Lord while Mara, who specializes in miniature universes, is supposed to be the Enchantress. You see the problem?

Derk has a matter of weeks to arrange loads of dark-side stuff for the tours, which he's ever so unwilling to do. Making matters worse, the people who went to the Oracles, including high wizard Querida, expect him to fail because of his limited powers; so thinking that he's going to end the tours by botching everything, they help things along by sabotaging him at every turn. Derk has to frantically rush all over the place, be umpteen places at once, keep zillions of different moving parts well oiled and in their proper place, AND deal with sabotage from within and Mr. Chesney's unreasonable demands from without.

Derk's army is made up of other-world criminals who are supposed to be under a spell to control their violent natures, but who will still rape, rob, and murder you as soon as look at you. Plus he is distracted by thinking that Mara is leaving him. With all this going on and only days to go before the tours begin, Derk tops it all off by being burned nearly to death by an ancient dragon that has just awoken from a 300-year slumber and is angry because it doesn't understand what's going on.

So while Derk is recovering from his burns, the children take charge and the whole Dark Lord business becomes a family affair. The main part of this rather thick novel, then, is how Derk and his family work together to try to keep the tours, which they hate passionately, going smoothly...even though more and more things go wrong all the time. As I've said, people are sabotaging the tour thinking that they're helping Derk end the tours (and that includes his most trusted assistant). Meanwhile Derk's family is trying to keep the tours on track, thinking that if they fail, they personally and their world generally will be ruined.

But what no one reckoned on, was the double traitor in their midst, a betrayal so foul and dastardly that it completely disorganizes the pilgrim party Blade is supposed to guide, shatters Derk's family into heartbroken splinters, and results in the Dark Lord of the year sealing himself inside his estate (Derkholm) with his surviving children, refusing to take part in the tours and allowing a crowd of stranded pilgrims to gather outside his gates. This leads to a final and dreadful confrontation between the almost grief-maddened Derk, the unscrupulous Querida, a wrathful demon, an all-powerful god, an ancient dragon-king, the double traitor, an "expendable" pilgrim who has managed to survive, a thief lord, an elf prince, some very disgruntled tourists, and Mr. Chesney himself. Not to mention dwarves, griffins, wizards, kings, and young couples in love.

It's a very exciting novel, interesting also for the way it portrays relationships in a very complex family. It boasts some intensely gripping scenes, including a breathlessly scary one in which two brothers are forced to face each other as opponents in a gladiatorial contest to the death, knowing that if they don't fight they will both be killed. The romance in these two novels is of the unreal Shakespearean variety, where two young people lock eyes and fall in love at first sight. But otherwise it is a satisfying story, whose wry look at fantasy-adventure is full of humor, and whose many richly colored threads come together in a marvelous tapestry.

Year of the Griffin
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

This sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm is shorter and somewhat lighter than its predecessor. It's what the first year at Hogwarts might be like in Diana Wynne Jones' world. Instead of a wizard prep school, though, it's the Wizard University of which Querida is the high chancellor. But she is busy restoring their world to what it should be like after 8 years without the tours. And the older wizards, who were all in charge of things during the era of the tours, have retired. So the running of the university has fallen to younger wizards who were brought up through an educational system tailored toward the "practical magic user" demanded by the tours. Unfortunately, they are out of touch with magical theory and any sense of innovation or research in wizardry.

The University is also pretty hard up for money, which is what sets the plot rolling. For the chairman of the faculty, Wizard Corkoran (whose private ambition is to be the first man to walk on the moon) has decided to send a letter to the parents of all students, begging for donations so they can fix the roof, etc. For the six students in his first-year tutorial, however, this proves inconvenient.

One of them is Elda, the youngest of the griffin children of Derk and Mara; her father still disapproves of the university, and doesn't actually know she's there. The next is Lukin, son of King Luther of Luteria, a very poor northern kingdom that was ravaged by the tours, whose father also doesn't know he's at the University and doesn't want him to be a wizard. Then there's Olga, who is wanted by her pirate/gangster father for stealing part of his treasure. He also wants her to stay at home and help with the family business. And Felim, whose brother is a ruthless eastern Emir who has sworn to send assassins to kill him if he goes to the University. And Claudia, half-sister of the Emperor of the Southern Empire, whose brother Titus likes her well enough, while the Senate wants her dead; and Ruskin, a low-caste dwarf who has run away to study magic in order to help throw off the tyranny of the higher castes, who will also try to have him captured and executed.

Each of these students has a special gift, but some of their gifts are a little twisted by jinxes, including Lukin's tendency to inadvertently create deep pits, Claudia's trouble making any spell turn out right (and for a while, she is also followed around by a hat rack that is magically connected to her), Olga's trouble with causing horrible monsters to appear, and the fact that whenever Felim's life is in danger, he finds himself suddenly encased in a cocoon of books.

The trouble that breaks out because of the fundraising letters, unwisely sent to their families, is predictable yet also very entertaining. The six friends pull together to protect Felim from assassins and to save Olga from pirates. They work together to survive an attack by renegade griffins (no relation to Elda), they save Claudia from the Senators and Ruskin from the forgemasters, and when finally confronted by the armies of Luteria, the Empire, and the Emir, they manage (with a little outside help) to settle everything nicely. Most exciting, I think, is when their attempt to help Wizard Corkoran go to the moon turns into a hair-raising trip to Mars for Corkoran, all six friends, and Kit and Blade as well. Plus you can delight to a story so full of fun and outlandish adventure that it contains dialogue like this:
"It's only orange juice," he said. "Tell me who you are and what you think you're doing here, and I'll let you out."

"No," said the intruder. "My lips are sealed by oath. But you can't let me drown in orange juice. It is not a manly death."
Jones' ideas about magic are a little more developed than those of JK Rowling. There are gods, demons, pentagrams, and candles involved, so be advised in accordance with whatever you consider the line between acceptable fantasy and the occult. I still think it falls on the acceptable side, but there's a bit more room for debate on that than in the case of Harry Potter (which, IMHO, only bigots who haven't read the books would consider worthy of burning).

DWJ's Wizard University is also a bit more mature than Hogwarts, having a college-aged student body with all the drinking and romance and grown-up mischief that goes with it. The students' life isn't quite as regimented as that at Hogwarts, and they live more in the normal world (with a rowing crew, a university choir, table tennis, fencing team, etc. as extracurricular activities). And they don't take their teachers quite as seriously as Harry and his friends take their Hogwarts teachers.

The head teacher, Corkoran, is only a marginally better wizard than Gilderoy Lockhart. Wizard Wermacht, at the low end of the faculty pecking-order, is arrogant, pathetic, gloomy, and an incompetent fool; he is like a much less capable Professor Snape. Dried-up old Querida is a very powerful female wizard for the forces of good, but she really has no conscience; and sometimes her physical fragility seems more significant than her magical powers. When Wizard Finn isn't trying to steal away another man's wife, he seems to be fooling around with pretty female students. Wizard Myrna is sidelined by pregnancy, Wizard Dench (the bursar) has little time to think of anything except fund raising, and Wizard Umberto is so shy and quiet that no one really knows what he does.

The best teachers turn out to be Kit, Blade, a pile of out-of-circulation library books recommended by Derk, a griffin from overseas named Flury who shows up in the middle of the book, and a statue of the University's founder, Wizard Policant, which sometimes talks. (Kit and Blade, by the way, during the 8-year interval between the two stories, became two of the four most powerful wizards in the world.)

There are two further lessons to be learned from this book: (1) don't mess around with talking pigeons, and (2) don't take your anger out on innocent cows.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

In a brief but informative essay titled “How I Came to Write This Guidebook,” inside the back cover of The Tough Guide, D.W.J. admits that her inspiration came while she was helping to edit The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. The process of writing The Tough Guide served, in turn, as the inspiration for Dark Lord of Derkholm. A lifetime of experience in writing and reading fantasy fiction served her well as D.W.J. compiled this facetious travel guide to the world of fantasy, where the reader is invited to prepare for a “tour.”

Recognizing the similarities among even the best fantasy tales, to say nothing of their tiresome clich├ęs, The Tough Guide starts by assuming that all fantasy novels take place in the same world. So all “tours” proceed through a limited number of routes and options. Then, factoring in all the things fantasy novels never mention, the Guide shows Fantasyland to be a very, very strange world. A world whose mysterious laws are only known, if at all, to “the Management” (fantasy authors?), though quite a lot can be deduced.

Brief, compact, well-organized, this is precisely the book you would need if you were going to be a “tourist” in Fantasyland. It tells you when to worry and not to worry, what to expect from the weather and the food, and how to pronounce a lot of silly “Pan-Celtic” jargon. Better still, The Tough Guide is a handy reference, explaining the types of magic, characters, creatures, and other things you can expect to find in a fantasy novel...or, if you wish to write one, the literary conventions you may wish either to keep or to break. Best of all, the book is a laugh-a-page spoof of a land you would only want to visit in your imagination.

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