I’ve been wondering how to start this blog. I’ve been on a heavy Dresden Files and Song of Fire and Ice binge recently, and I’m right smack in the middle of both series(es). But it just didn’t seem right to have my first post be on the third or seventh book in a series (though I do promise to talk about them eventually).
So for a while this blog sat around on the internet, lonely and unknown.
A few weeks ago something quite upsetting happened. Diana Wynne Jones passed away. After having a few days of misery and regret (and confusion over the fact that I had never met her, but really loved her), I realized that I needed to christen my blog with an entry on Jones. Writing a review of a single author’s entire writing career—while daunting—feels much more apt as a starting point, than writing about this book or that series. Moreover, I think Diana Wynne Jones is simple one of the best writers of young adult fantasy.
I promise that future installments will not only (a) focus on only one book, but will be (b) shorter and (c) more balanced in negative and positive evaluation.
Now, without further ado, my homage to Diana Wynne Jones.
Diana Wynne Jones
(6 August 1934 – 26 March 2011)
Diana Wynne Jones is most well-known for Howl’s Moving Castle, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci series, The Dark Lord of Derkholm, and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but she is the author of over forty books1 (one to be published posthumously) and a myriad of short stories and anthologies. She has won the mythopoeic fantasy award multiple times, has had one of her films adapted into a full length animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, was a student to both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, as well as a close friend to Neil Gaiman.
She is—quite simply—brilliant.
When comparing authors, the most obvious comparison is J. K. Rowling. (After all, my first experience with Jones was because the reissue of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci had the quote “Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” on its cover.) But where Rowling writes about the epic battle between good and evil, Jones writes about the everyday struggle between shades of grey. While Rowling offers plucky sayings about how a mother’s love is the only difference between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, Jones’s characters spend their time becoming disillusioned of their parents’ love and coming to understand that parents are human too.2
Jones’s writing isn’t embittered, but rather straight-talking. In overstated terms: She doesn’t talk down to children. She presents them with the world as it is (well, perhaps minus the magicians and magids): with cruel or oblivious parents, who are fully grown-up adults (i.e., the kind of adults that don’t remember what it was like to be a child). But Jones doesn’t leave it at “the world sucks”; rather, she shows that even in a world where things are often shitty, you can still control your life and be happy. All in all, Jones understands that children are far less innocent and unawares than we often assume—they don’t need to be told that everything is rainbows and cupcakes, they need to know how to deal with the anger and/or grief of an imperfect world.
Her imperfect worlds are emphasized by her main characters, who are, themselves, never perfect. Howl is more than a little narcissistic; Chrestomanci3 purposefully distances himself in order to add mystique to his persona; the children of Witch Week are bratty and self-interested; and the entire premise of Deep Secret is set up on the main characters’ revulsion toward each other’s horrible personalities.
Who could forget Howl’s green goo or Chrestomanci’s fashionable dressing gowns? Who doesn’t find Howl’s and Sophie’s repartee wickedly hilarious and sincerely endearing? And while Rupert and Maree cannot stand each other on first glance, that only makes their character development that much more complex and, thus, believable.
But so what; believable characters aren’t that uncommon, are they? (I hope not!) How about a really complex, truly interesting world? What about 20 of them?
Jones’s has the almost unbelievable ability to create a new world for every story. A new, fully functional, fully complete world. In some novels you even get several worlds. Some are set in the not-quite-here: Deep Secret is one of those this-is-our-world-but-with-magic stories (the secret police of the story are Magids, who try their darndest to make sure no one knows magic exists). Meanwhile The Chronicles of Chrestomanci are specifically set only a few worlds over, in a world where Guy Fawks still tries and fails to blow up Parliament, yet magic (rather than electricity) became the driving force, somewhere along the way. At the far end of the planetary spectrum, you have The Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is set in a full-blown fantasy realm with talking gryphons, dark lords, and epic magic battles.
And each setting has its own rules and laws of magic. In Chrestomanci you get the standard practice of spells which have to be learned and practiced before they can be used (usually with some unwanted theory on the power of dragon’s blood thrown in). In Fire and Hemlock, magic is controlled by the power of spoken word and truth meaning (much to the main character’s unknowing peril). The Homeward Bounders revolves around an Illuminati-esque group of magicians who employ rituals to keep their epic chess game in play. A few of her younger reader stories base their magical structure around the (mostly) traditional mythology of the Norse and Greek pantheons.
Jones managed to weave intricate plot lines, complex characters, and unique settings. Yet even with all of the layers of complexity and emotional turmoil, Jones is still a writer of Young Adult stories. In the end, you know things are going to turn out alright.4 Because I am a reader of YA fantasy, I like to think that this isn’t a flaw. When critics speak of the perils of escapism, they fail to consider the needs of children/teens/young adults. Children aren’t (usually) going to start thinking that magic is real. But they are going to start thinking that life sucks (think back to your teenage years, you’ll remember the feeling), and that it’s never going to get better. Jones (and others like her) offers her readers hope and encouragement. In sucky situations (whether your grandmother is trying to turn you into a dog, or your boyfriend is being kidnapped by the Fairy Queen, or your sister is draining your lives to fuel her magic in an attempt to rule the land), there is always the light at the end of the tunnel, the happy ending at the end of the story.4a
Another way that Jones’s style reflects her young adult audience is in her humor. Jones captures her readers’ attention with a sharp wit and subtle grace that can only come from a lifetime of practice.5 Take the opening sentences of Howl’s Moving Castle:
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success. […] True, her own mother died when Sophie was two years old and her sister Lettie was one year old, and their father married his youngest shop assistant, a pretty blonde girl called Fanny. Fanny shortly gave birth to the third sister, Martha. This ought to have made Sophie and Lettie into Ugly Sisters, but in fact all three girls grew up very pretty indeed […]
Within the span of one tiny mass market paperback page, Jones has swept you elegantly into a fantasy world that cleverly pokes fun at its own rules rooted in fairy tales and fantasy (Jones likes to do this; see The Tough Guide to Fantasyland).
But not all of her books have such an obvious, tongue-in-cheek humor. The humor in A Sudden Wild Magic is found in the way the main characters try to stage a coup against a group of (all male) wizards: when their feminine wiles don’t work, they stage an impromptu Conga (which disrupts the delicate magical ley lines). In Deep Secret, Nick Mallory6 eats two breakfasts before he even wakes up—but only at the guidance of motherly sister, Maree. Jones’s humor is situational, narrational, and often character-based. Even in her darkest novels (probably Fire and Hemlock or The Homeward Bounders) have moments of frivolity and laughter.
In summary, what I wish to say is simply this: If you haven’t read a Diana Wynne Jones book, do so. Now. Her effortless blend of characters, setting, themes, and humor make her books practically irresistible. And with the range of styles from the light(er)-hearted Chronicles of Chrestomanci to the rich and complex Deep Secret, you will find at least one novel you enjoy. Heck, you might even read all forty.
(1) I have read all of them excluding Changeover (nonfiction), The Skiver’s Guide (nonfiction), Yes, Dear (a picture book), andEarwig and the Witch (not yet released).
(2) I’m not saying that Rowling’s books aren’t amazing. But they are what they are: escapist stories where magic is real and good prevails. I love her characters, her world, and her writing style; but things are too easily put into categories of black and white. With Jones’s writing, things are never that simple. How could they be when parents are neglectful (without being outright abusive), when relationships cross the lines into possibly-taboo-age-differences, or when family members are manipulative (and sometimes try to kill you)?
(3) The Chrestomanci formerly known as Christopher Chant.
(4) Well . . . except for Fire and Hemlock. But since I wrote my 25 page senior thesis on multiplicity in Fire and Hemlock . . . we’re not going to go into detail about this particular book.
(4a) See footnote 4.
(5) Though many mistake this for innate (read: magical) writing talent.
(6) Who was apparently based on author Neil Gaiman (pseudo-apprentice and close friend of Jones).
More Like This
Howl’s Moving Castle: Patricia C. Wrede (Dealing with Dragons), William Goldman (The Princess Bride)
Hexwood: Neil Gaiman (Stardust)
Fire and Hemlock: Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn), Pamela Dean (The Secret Country trilogy), Garth Nix (the Abhorsen trilogy), Patricia Wrede (Snow White and Rose Red)
Deep Secret and A Sudden Wild Magic: Diane Duane (So You Want to be a Wizard series), Herbie Brennan (Faerie Wars series)
The Homeward Bounders: Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere)
The Chronicles of Chrestomanci: J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series)
A Tale of Time City: Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted)
Archer’s Goon and Seven Days of Luke: Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson series)
The Power of Three: Herbie Brennan (Faerie Wars series)
Short Stories: Sharyn November (Ed.) (Firebirds, Firebirds Rising, and Firebirds Soaring)
By Farah Mendlesohn, who has written academically on Jones’s writing.
By Neil Gaiman, pseudo-apprentice and friend of Jones
Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature by Farah Medlesohn
Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom by Teya Rosenberg, Martha P. Hixon, Sharon M. Scapple, and Donna R. White