Diana Wynne Jones

During the past couple of weeks I finally finished reading all the books of the late Diana Wynne Jones (except for a couple of non-fantasy books such as her first novel, Changeover). While one or two have been disappointments, I’m happy to say I’m as impressed by her work as I was the first time round. Which is to say one of my top three or four fantasy writers.
What makes her such a pleasure to read? Well, entertaining stories, obviously. And good characterization, particularly when it comes to exploring family dynamics. A recurring element in her stories is that the protagonist doesn’t realize until late in the book what his/her family are really like (often worse than she thought, sometimes better); another is an older relative as villain who does most of their dirty work by manipulation, though sometimes by magic (as in Aunt Maria). The creepy manipulators are invariably plausible, never as cartoonish as the Dursleys in Harry Potter.
Another asset is that Jones handles magic well. There’s never much time devoted to the rules of magic or to a magic “system”—magic-users simply perform wonders, but without coming off as deus ex. And raw magic power is rarely the solution to beating the villains: In Pinhoe’s Egg, for example, Chrestomanci uses strategy to take down a family of witches rather than go toe-to-toe with them.
Magical protectors such as Chrestomanci crop up in Jones’ work a lot: Not only Chrestomanci but the Merlins in Deep Secret, the witches in Sudden Wild Magic, and characters in her last two books, House of Many Ways and Enchanted Glass. She handles them well—even when Chrestomanci shows up for a last-minute rescue in Witch Week, he can’t simply put things to rights with a snap of his fingers.
As to the final books: THE PINHOE EGG is the only direct sequel to Charmed Life, as Chrestomanci and his nephew Cat become involved in a feud between two local witchy families which turns out to have consequences for all the fair folk and other supernatural beings in the vicinity. Given my mother’s recent problems, I was really struck by the opening scenes of a powerful mage with dementia (Jones nails it—and shows even the worst periods with Mum could have been tougher).
HOUSE OF MANY WAYS has a bookish young woman become caretaker of her wizard uncle’s house only to find herself ill-equipped to cope with even basic housework (given how many bookish protagonists show up in fantasy, I wonder if Jones was satirizing them by showing one who isn’t a hero in waiting), let alone the way his house distorts time and space. Fortunately Wizard Howl (of Howl’s Moving Castle) is on hand … The story is fun, though the villains go down way too easily.
And finally, ENCHANTED GLASS likewise has a young man inheriting his mage uncle’s home and “field of care” which turns out to be a bigger challenge than expected as King Oberon of the sidhe has his own ambitions for the neighborhood. The romance here feels forced and the ending awkward, but still a satisfactory read—not a bad one to go out on.

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One response to “Diana Wynne Jones

  1. Pingback: Unfinished books, Superman movies, Sherlock Holmes and more: this week’s reading | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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