Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

I have a couple of half-finished blogs, but I have to put them on hold to pay tribute to one of the great writers who has just passed away. If only I could come up with words to do her justice.

First I'll send you over to this post from Book Aunt, because she does a great job of summing up Diana Wynne Jones' multiplicity of books. Then you should read Jones' rather astonishing autobiography.

After reading about her life, it won't surprise you to hear that Diana Wynne Jones' books are odd, quirky, funny, "tilted away sideways*" from anything else you've ever read. Her writing is endlessly imaginative, sharply humourous, and deeply complex. There are books of hers I've reread several times and still don't get. My favourite books I reread often and get something new out of them every time. Even the lightest-hearted stories leave you feeling vaguely disquieted, as if some of your cherished assumptions have been subtly altered but you're not sure how.

Where should you start? You're most likely to be able to lay hands easily on Howl's Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci books, as they are justifiably her most popular works. The wizard Howl and Chrestomanci are both marvellous creations: powerful, arrogant, good but deeply flawed. And Sophie (of Howl's Moving Castle) is the best heroine ever. Period. Calcifer the demon is fasinating and the castle itself is brilliant; I could go on and on about Howl's Moving Castle. It's one of my all-time-favourite, bring-to-desert-island, reread-whenever-I'm-feeling-down books. The Chrestomanci books, besides having Chrestomanci himself (and don't we all wish there really were such a person, to step in and fix everything at the last minute, though not without challenging us to do most of the fixing ourselves, thus discovering our own hidden strength; and not without getting thoroughly exasperated at our ability to have screwed things up this badly in the first place) are a wonderful introduction to the Diana Wynne Jones' multiverse, her collection of parallel universes, most of which are far more interesting than our own. Here's a suggestion from her website about how to read the Chrestomanci books; like the multiverse itself, they proliferate in multiple directions, and it doesn't really matter which one you read first. They are short, easy reads and great fun, but there's a core of seriousness--Jones' villains are truly scary, once you find out who the villains really are.

My next favourite books after these (in fact, I may even like them more, but I don't have my own copies so I haven't reread them in a while) are The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. These are absolutely hilarious. They manage to be both a brilliant satire of the whole fantasy genre and perfectly plotted fantasy novels in their own right. I think I'm going to have to order these online because they should be in my library.

Then there are her books for older readers with seriously mind-bending concepts and narration: Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock are the ones I have read. If you like books where you're never sure what's real because someone is messing with reality, check these out. Dogsbody is another more serious novel for older readers, a wonderful, sad story that many people mention as a favourite (not nearly so mind-bending, in case you were worried).

She returns to the multiverse with The Merlin Conspiracy, which I could explain as Chrestomanci for people who can follow really convoluted plots--convoluted in a good way, with a crazy cast of characters and universes and an ending that comes much too soon despite the 472 pages. And she plays with reality again, doing yet another take on magical people who have to take care of things so everything doesn't fall apart, with Enchanted Glass. (Best use of vegetables in fiction, BTW.)

I'm going to go on a quest for Diana Wynne Jones books I haven't read yet (and she's a prolific author, so there are many). I'll let you know when I find more favourites. In the meantime, you can tell me which your favourites are. Let's make a point of introducing her to as many people as we can.

*A quotation from The Merlin Conspiracy


  1. She does have THE most amazing, ridiculous, wonderful autobiography ever. It seems so fitting though. As I've said, I truly believe there was something SUPERNATURAL about her, like she really had the ability to TAP INTO alternate universes and write about what she saw there.

    My favorite that you haven't mentioned is Archer's Goon. It's just so delightfully entertaining in every possible way. And Howl's Moving Castle is most definitely my favorite because I am a bit in love with Sophie. Or girl-crush anyway. Well, MAJORLY in girl-crush, not a "bit" (number 3 on my list, which I would link to if I could get to it right now but the server appears to be down). Of course I am also in love with Chrestomanci (#6 on the BOY crush list), but none of his books stick out as particularly more favorite than any others.

    The Derkholm books are totally on the top of my list of Books By Her I Need to Read Next. They're not in any of my actual public libraries, so I may need to order some copies for myself, too!

    And I know exactly what you mean about "Even the lightest-hearted stories leave you feeling vaguely disquieted, as if some of your cherished assumptions have been subtly altered but you're not sure how." EXACTLY.

  2. I have not yet read Archer's Goon; my library does have a copy, so I can remedy that soon. I'm currently reading A Tale of Time City, which I had never read. It's quite different, being a time travel novel mostly set in a far distant future (well, so far, I just started today; who knows what other times it will visit!). Puts me in mind of Connie Willis.

    A number of her older works are hard to find; I think a used bookstore needs to be my next stop.