What makes DWJ's books so great?
I'll begin with the details. I've noticed a lot of the best fantasy books and stories have shockingly creative details. Just think about it: glass slippers, a giant beanstalk, a cat in boots, an aerial school sport played on broomsticks, a young witch who uses her little brother as bait and hits a river monster with a frying pan.
Now, consider Diana Wynne Jones's inventiveness: a dirty sneakers spell, a scrawny young goddess who longs to go to a girls' boarding school, a nine-lived enchanter supervising magic through the dimensions like a chief of police, a song that brings down a mountain, a goon at the kitchen table, a young woman who is cursed with old age, a spell that's a conga line...
And Jones's parallel worlds always include big doses of the ordinary, making the dragon's blood matter all the more.
Convolution. (I wanted to say convolutedness, perhaps because it sounds more twisty!) DWJ's books are unpredictable, with a subtle vein of humor running through most of them. One of the biggest compliments of my life was when an editor compared the ending of my manuscript to Diana Wynne Jones's work because I had what he called a cast of thousands plus a complicated ending.
There are certain scenes in Diana Wynne Jones's books—you know, the kind that make you smile and even laugh a little because you know they're coming up in a few pages. One of them is the conga line mentioned above, actually from one of Jones's books for grown-ups, A Sudden Wild Magic.
Of course, the reason you know they're coming up is because you're rereading. Some books can only be read once. But DWJ's books are rereadable in a big way.
One of the best things about Diana Wynne Jones's writing is her way with characters. For example, her kid characters aren't heroic, particularly. They're grubby and surprised and sometimes unkind, though they do have their good points. I am very fond of Christopher Chant and Millie, not to mention Howard and Sophie and obviously Howl, just for starters. Plus the Goon. And a cat named Throgmorten! The villains are dimensional, too. Anyone who has ever had a horrible older sister will nevertheless gasp at Gwendolyn Chant's complete and utter ruthlessness, as well as her ongoing efforts to upset Chrestomanci with her over-the-top spells.
DWJ's books are also characterized by a kind of practical, nearly hardnosed, sort of whimsy.
I have my favorites, as you can tell. Here are a handful of them:
Cart and Cwidder
Like the other books in this unconnected set, the Dalemark Quartet, Cart and Cwidder takes place in a vaguely medieval setting. You'll find that the author's way with character extends to an understanding of families and how they function, or rather how they straggle along. Clennen is a larger-than-life personality on a small stage, a musician and performer traveling around Dalemark with his children. But when they pick up a new passenger, Moril learns that his father is not what he seems, and Moril will have to be braver and more musical than he ever imagined. I say this, sounding epic, but the fact is that these kids squabble along even as they try to fulfill their father's mission and beat the bad guys. They don't always know what to do, and yet they plug along, alternately messing up and getting it right. Like I said, real.
While Lenina was cooking supper, Clennen fetched the big cwidder down, polished it, tuned it carefully, and beckoned Moril. Moril came reluctantly. He was rather in awe of the big cwidder. Its shining round belly was even more imposing than Clennen's. The inlaid patterns on the front and arm, made of pearl and ivory and various colored woods, puzzled him by their strangeness. And its voice when you played it was so surprisingly sweet and quite unlike that of the other cwidders. Clennen took such care of it that Moril still sometimes thought—as he had when he was little—that this cwidder was an extra, special part of Clennen, more important than his father's arm or leg—something on the lines of a wooden soul.
How's that for writing?? Keep in mind that that's her early stuff. DWJ was just getting started!
Howl's Moving Castle
A lot of people know about this book, or at least the 2004 film of the story made by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. In a world where fairy tale rules dictate that the younger daughters will have all the luck, Sophie doesn't see herself having much of a future—and that's even before the Witch of the Waste turns her into a little old lady. Freed from her shyness by dint of old age, Sophie sets out on an adventure. She catches up with the terrible wizard Howl's moving castle and basically forces herself in, making friends with a strange fiery creature named Calcifer. Of course, this is a DWJ books, so there are about 50 subplots. Yet she makes them all work!
[When Sophie tries to tidy up Howl's room and then the yard.] "Not here either," he said. "You are a terror, aren't you? Leave this yard alone. I know just where everything is in it, and I won't be able to find the things I need for my transport spells if you tidy them up."
So there was probably a bundle of souls or a box of chewed hearts somewhere out here, Sophie thought. She felt really thwarted. "Tidying up is what I'm here for!" she shouted at Howl.
"Then you must think of a new meaning for your life," Howl said... "Now trot along indoors, you overactive old thing, and find something else to play with before I get angry. I hate getting angry."
Sophie folded her skinny arms. She did not like being glared at by eyes like glass marbles. "Of course you hate getting angry!" she retorted. "You don't like anything unpleasant, do you? You're a slitherer-outer, that's what you are! You slither away from anything you don't like!"
Howl gave a forced sort of smile. "Well now," he said. "Now we both know each other's faults."
A boy named Howard comes home to find the Goon sitting at the kitchen table, scaring baby sitter Fifi and not exactly scaring Howard's holy terror of a little sister, Awful. The Goon wants something, but what? I can sincerely predict that you'll never guess where this is going, but it has something to do with the two thousand words Howard's father must turn in to a man named Mountjoy every three months. When the pages get waylaid, the electricity is turned off. And that's just the beginning of the troubles that come to Howard's family. Let's just say things escalate—it's rotten and hilarious all at the same time. Howard discovers that a group of unpleasant siblings are running the city, a crime family with magical powers. I'll stop there, but this is another odd, convoluted tale. I love it! Especially the Goon.
Not-So-Random Excerpt (because it's the prologue):
1. A Goon is a being who melts into the foreground and sticks there.
2. Pigs have wings, making them hard to catch.
3. All power corrupts, but we need electricity.
4. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the result is a family fight.
5. Music does not always soothe the troubled breast.
6. An Englishman's home is his castle.
7. The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
8. One black eye deserves another.
9. Space is the final frontier, and so is the sewage farm.
10. It pays to increase your word power.
To my dismay, when I sat down to write this post, I realized I had loaned Dogsbody to my associate editor. Why, oh why? Well, I figure it speaks volumes that when I realized she was a fantasy reader and writer who had missed out on a lot of the best stuff, this was one of half a dozen books I loaned her, as well as Howl's Moving Castle (she had seen the movie). Dogsbody has a fairly gritty subplot about a little girl who is living with unloving relatives and a parallel subplot about a puppy she rescues from the river. Only, this being DWJ, the puppy is something more, a lost somebody on the run from enemies, but stuck in a puppy mind. He has trouble protecting Kathleen, let alone himself. A strange and tender story with an appearance by the horned god in the forest.
No excerpt. Sorry!
The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life
DWJ's best invention is arguably Chrestomanci, which sounds like a name but is actually a title. The most powerful enchanter in the series of known worlds is obligated to be trained to police magic in those worlds. In The Lives of Christopher Chant, the son of rather awful feuding parents is often at loose ends. Is it any wonder he responds when his too-bland governess and his mother's friend involve him in a scheme to take advantage of the fact that he travels to the Anywheres in his dreams? One of the two funniest things about this book is the gruesomely amusing way Christopher keeps getting killed in his dreams (in answer to the old question, if you die in your dreams, do you die in real life?). The other is a friend Christopher makes in one of the worlds, the young Goddess of Asheth. Her idea of bliss is to read books about girls at boarding schools, e.g., Head Girl Millie. Then the plot thickens. And swerves. And does a loop-de-loop. I especially like the creativity of the bootboy, the cook, the gardeners, and some maids who are called upon to join the magical defense of the house.
Charmed Life features a Chrestomanci who turns out to be the grown-up Christopher Chant. He always wears silk dressing gowns around the mansion full of magic workers. Since he can be summoned by repeating his name three times, he tends to show up in his dressing gown. But our story begins with a boy named Cat (Eric) Chant and his vain, ringleted older sister Gwendolyn. The two go to live with Chrestomanci. Gwendolyn expects to be cosseted, if not revered, so she is enraged to find that's not what happens. Meanwhile, Cat wanders around, bewildered, finding out the various small secrets of a house full of magic. There's a mystery surrounding Cat and his sister that gradually emerges as the plot progresses. And then Gwendolyn disappears, leaving an astonished doppelganger behind.
Random Excerpt (from Charmed Life):
"Why were you in the bath?" he said, wondering whether to search the bathroom.
"I don't know. I just woke up there," said Janet, shaking out a tangle of hair ribbons in the bottom drawer. "I felt as if I'd been dragged through a hedge backward, and I'd no clothes on, so I was freezing."
"Why had you no clothes on?" Cat said, stirring Gwendolen's underclothes about, without success.
"I was hot in bed last night," said Janet. "So naked I came into this world. And I wandered about pinching myself—especially after I found this fabulous room. I thought I must have been turned into a princess. But there was this nightdress lying on the bed, so I put it on—"
"You've got it on back to front," said Cat.
Janet stopped scanning the things on the mantelpiece to look down at the trailing ribbons. "Have I? It won't be the only thing I'm going to get back to front, by the sound of it. Try looking in that artistic wardrobe. Then I explored outside here, and all I found was miles of long green corridor, which gave me the creeps, and stately grounds out the windows, so I came back in here and went to bed. I hoped that when I woke up it would all have gone away. And instead there was you. Found anything?"
"No," said Cat. "But there's her box—"
"It must be in there," said Janet.
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
If you're going to write fantasy, you should read this book. And if you're a fantasy reader, you should, too. DWJ presents a delightfully diabolical, tongue-in-cheek look at all the most standard-issue fantasy tropes every written. This send-up is very, very funny, but in addition, it has helped me to think differently about my own writing. For example, I never serve my fantasy characters stew, and that's entirely due to this book. Note that Ms. Jones sets the whole thing up as a tour. (See also her book The Dark Lord of Derkholm. The Guide is a companion to that one.) Here are a few sample entries. Note that OMT stands for Official Management Term.
DUKES. This is the highest form of lord, often one of the KING's family. Very few of them are GOOD and most of them are wicked uncles at the very least. The few Good Dukes are always frantically busy and beset with
cares of state [OMT]. The Rule is that all Dukes, Good or EVIL, are always forty years old or more. See also REGENTS. from COLOUR CODING. Eyes. Black eyes are invariably Evil; brown eyes mean boldness and humour, but not necessarily goodness; green eyes always entail TALENT, usually for MAGIC but sometimes for MUSIC... grey eyes mean POWER or healing abili ties (see HEALERS) and will be reassuring unless they look silver... blue eyes are always GOOD, the bluer the more Good present; and then there are violet eyes and golden eyes. People with violet eyes are often of Royal birth and, if not, always live uncomfortably interesting lives. People with golden eyes just live uncomfortably interesting lives, and most of them are rather fey into the bargain.
Of the hundreds of books that have taught me to write, Diana Wynne Jones's are among the few at the top of the list. I can only imagine
Thank you, Diana, for the treasure of your books. Through their cleverness, creativity, and wry good humor, I do feel I got to know you. Again, thank you.
I will add that I wro
Three Firebird reissues (DOGSBODY, FIRE AND HEMLOCK, and A TALE OF TIME CITY—each is the definitive edition, and each has an intro by a star—DOGSBODY (Neil Gaiman), A TALE OF TIME CITY (Ursula Le Guin), FIRE AND HEMLOCK (Garth Nix). FIRE AND HEMLOCK also features the essay "The Heroic Ideal," which DWJ wrote about the writing of the book; it has never before appeared alongside the book, or THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND (the Firebird edition is also definitive, entirely redesigned, with new art and material), the novella THE GAME, or her final book, EARWIG AND THE WITCH.
Yep, I have the updated Tough Guide to Fantasyland in my hot little hand, and I will lure you with the title of this special page, "How to Compose a Ballad." You will want to check out the map, too, and find out the secret of those epic fantasy names with the apostrophes in the middle.