Friday, April 20, 2012

Diana Wynne Jones Tribute

This month marks one year since the death of the amazingly wonderful children's fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. There has been a site set up to Celebrate Diana Wynne Jones which contains quotes, pictures, comments, and links to various posts on her works. There has also been a blog tour going on for those in publishing and bloggers to share their feelings on her and her work. My favorites have been the posts on the Greenwillow blog, particularly the one Megan Whalen Turner wrote. You can also post to #DWJ2012 on Twitter. My love for DWJ can not be contained in 140 characters and so I wrote a whole post.  If you are at this point wondering, "Who is Diana Wynne Jones?", well you should definitely go find out. She was writing wonderfully magical British fantasy books decades before Harry Potter was even a germ of an idea. I am truly sad that I did not discover her work as a child. (I LIVED IN ENGLAND. How did that happen???) I have made up for it in recent years, but still haven't made it all the way through her large back list.

I wanted to write about my favorite of her books and then found that it was impossible to choose a favorite, at least for me. One of the amazing things about DWJ is that she was so versatile a fantasy author. She didn't just stick to one type or style of fantasy, but explored them all. Her books are very different and equally wonderful. Choosing a favorite would depend a great deal on what sort of mood I was in and I would probably change my mind the next day.

The first DWJ book I read was Howl's Moving Castle. Why? Because Megan Whalen Turner said to in the notes she wrote in the back of The Thief. (Turner actually has Gen quote Howl in her book.) I fell in love, not just with Howl, but with the creativity, wit, and style of Jones' writing. I was blown away by the complex intricacies of the world she created and then threw her readers into with little explanation. I found out as I continued reading her work this is a trademark quality of her writing. She trusts her readers to be smart enough to figure out what is going on and never condescends to them. Then there are her characters who are layered, quirky, and fascinating. The books I have read all have a rather large cast of characters and I always remember their names, even the more minor characters. Since reading Howl I have read its two companion novels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, both of which have the same feel and style as Howl while being their own stories.

My second (and most reread) experience with DWJ was Fire and Hemlock. It was out of print so I had to track down a used copy that wouldn't bankrupt me. I was oh so excited when I found one. This is, after all, a retelling of Tam Lin. Which is why I wanted to read it so badly. Fortunately, if you have never read it, it is back in print as of this month with a beautiful new cover. Am I buying another copy so I can have one with said pretty cover? Oh yes I am. I was completely taken by surprise when I read this one for the first time. It is an entirely different sort of book than Howl's Moving Castle. It is dark. It is complex. It is shadowed with multiple shades of gray. Nothing in it is clear. The characters are often unlikable and yet so easy to relate to.  The ending requires multiple rereadings and I have yet to run across a person who can actually explain it. The novel is grounded in the real world and explores harsh realities that are not always comfortable. Like the psychology of Polly's fascination with Tom, and his cautious reluctant relationship with her, which he fosters and yet tries to dampen at the same time. In many ways it is as dark as a Tam Lin story gets (which is saying something), mainly because it is so grounded in the real world. The dynamic between Polly and Tom would be disturbing (and sort of is anyways) minus the fantasy element.  It is a novel that never allows you to stop thinking. 

Even though I can't choose a favorite book, I can choose a favorite character. As much as I love Howl and Sophie and feel for Polly and Tom, I adore to the core of my being Christopher Chant. The Chrestomanci series may be the part of her work that fascinates me the most. It contains six books that were published over a period of 29 years, beginning with Charmed Life in 1977 and ending with The Pinhoe Egg in 2006. You would think that over that many years the series would read a tad disjointedly, but it doesn't. I read the series in the order they are in for the 3 volume set. When you read them that way an amazing contrast comes out between the first two (Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant) and the last two (Conrad's Fate and The Pinhoe Egg). It is from this that my love of Christopher springs. I always have a tendency to develop a tenderness for characters who have flirted with the dark side and ended on the good side, however reluctantly, only that much wiser for what they have done (particularly when they don't completely regret it). I was bound to fall for Christopher for this if nothing else. But there is more. In reading the books in that particular order you see Christopher as an adult mentor and guide to his young confused successor and you see him as a child always at odds with and misunderstood by his own predecessor. He is very clearly trying to not repeat old patterns, to be a different and better mentor than Gabriel, no matter how much Cat pushes back at him. Establishing and maintaining his character arc over 6 books and 29 years was an amazing feat. Add to that the Chrestomanci books are about magical education and traveling from world to world with different realities and you have an amazing set of books.

I also love the Dalemark Quartet, which is a mythopoeic, hero/quest story brilliant in its scope and history. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a hilarious guidebook to prepare you for any journey through fantasyland. It contains term definitions in alphabetical order and is set up like a tour guidebook. It is satire at its best and a must read for any fan of epic fantasy. Following along with the concept of tours through fantasyland, there is also The Dark Lord of Derkholm where tourists pay to go on a journey through an epic fantasy, confrontation with Dark Lord guaranteed. It is brilliant good fun. All of these books are amazing and only account for about half of the books Diana Wynne Jones wrote. I still have yet to read all of the other ones including her latest published posthumously, Earwig and the Witch. I'm so looking forward to continuing to enjoy the work of this amazing author and introducing my children to it.

Other DWJ fans out there: Can you choose a favorite?


  1. "What a lie that was!" Love that line. :P I also loved MWT's tribute to DWJ and yes, I also read Howl because MWT said so.

    Howl's Moving Castle is still my favorite DWJ. Although I haven't read all of her books - only Howl and it's companions and the first two Chrestomanci books. I plan to go through the rest of her backlist though. I'm delighted that Fire and Hemlock has been reprinted, just need to wait for copies of it to pop up in local bookstores.

  2. Happy sigh. I am so tempted to read every single one of her books again! Right now--not going to work or anything. :)