Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Author

A few weeks ago, in a comment on my “What’s in a Name?” entry, Alan Robson mentioned Enchanted Glass, a new novel by Diana Wynne Jones. I immediately made a note to go out and get the novel, since I am a great admirer of Ms. Wynne Jones’ work.

Then I responded to Alan’s comment by mentioning Ms. Wynne Jones’ marvelous The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. When Alan responded again, I was tempted to add yet another comment. However, I could see we were about to get into one of those nice, juicy book conversations that can be such fun to share.

So here I am. Before I get started, I want to say that I have never met Ms. Wynne Jones. I sat behind her once at a convention. I was too shy to introduce myself. So I’m not pushing the works of a friend, just enthusing about someone whose novels I have admired for many, many years.

The first novel by Diana Wynne Jones I encountered was a contemporary fantasy entitled Dogsbody. How do you describe a book that is told mostly from the point of view of a dog, that features celestial bodies as characters, and that includes among the challenges the characters face house cats, sibling rivalry, otherworldly assassins, the Wild Hunt, and IRA terrorists?

You don’t. You simply say, “Please read this book. It will fill you with wonder. It will break your heart. It will give you transcendent hope.”

So now I’ve said it. If Dogsbody is perhaps my favorite of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, this does not mean Diana Wynne Jones has not written other wonderful books. Part of what delights me about her work is that it is not all the same. Some of her works (like Dogsbody) are more or less serious. However, she has a twisted perspective that lets her see the world sideways and inside out. Then she writes about the most outrageous subjects in a completely matter-of-fact, deceptively simple prose.

Perhaps the best known of Diana Wynne Jones’ books in this vein is Howl’s Moving Castle. In it, a young girl finds herself transformed into an old woman. Oh, my! What a horrible curse! Age! Wrinkles! Arthritis! Not being pretty…

Except that the young lady in question actually discovers that being an old lady isn’t all bad. She discovers some new freedoms, some interesting things about herself. To say more would be to rob a new reader of the pleasure of discovery.

(No. Despite being a huge Miyazaki fan, I haven’t seen the animated movie based upon this book. I don’t usually see movies based on books I’ve liked. It’s a quirk.)

Other Diana Wynne Jones books in this twisted vein include Aunt Maria, Archer’s Goon, and A Sudden Wild Magic. There are others…

Diana Wynne Jones wrote novels about a magical world within our world long before J.K. Rowling introduced us to Harry Potter and his friends. The Chrestomanci books, which include Charmed Life, Witch Week, and The Lives of Christopher Chant (and others) investigate this environment in a series of interlocked tales.

She has also written more traditional imaginary world fantasy in her intricate Dalemark Quartet. (The first novel in the series is Cart and Cwidder.) Then she turned the same genre on its ear in her wonderful Dark Lord of Derkholm.

And now for The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Is this fiction or not? I’m not sure. Formatted as a travel guide to some generic Fantasyland, this book gently and affectionately skewers the cliches and set pieces of the genre.

When writers come to me and say, “I want to write Fantasy. What courses should I take? What books should I read?” The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is at the top of my list. Why?

Not because I don’t like High Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery, and therefore want to see this sort of book mocked and people running screaming from the very idea of writing it. (Heck, I’ve read a lot of it and even written some). No. It’s because I have a strong feeling that would-be Fantasy writers (and, frankly, many published Fantasy writers) need to think hard about their world-building.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a crash course in learning to think about world-building.  Best of all, it’s fun.

I could enthuse on, book by book, through the works of this amazing writer, but I think I’ll stop here so you can go find a Diana Wynne Jones novel and experience the pleasure for yourselves.

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13 Responses to “Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Author”

  1. Eric Says:

    Until that brief conversation between the two of you and Alan, I’d never heard of Diana Wynne Jones, but since then, I’ve done some research and read what I could get my hands on. I’ve definitely become a fan. Thanks to you both for introducing me to more great fantasy reading! Cheers.

  2. Ann Nalley Says:

    I’ll second what Eric said! Although I haven’t been to the library or bookstore yet today, I’m itching to get my hands on Diana Wynne Jones’s work. It’s always a treat to be introduced to new treasure!

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    I have to confess, the only one of her books I have read is the Tough Guide, and I loved it! I included a couple of her tropes in my manuscript in progress (ahem) but you know, she made me think about it before I did.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    Diana Wynne Jones — oh gosh! Where to start?

    She has always seemed to me to be quintessentially British in her approach to story telling, with a very dry, and often quite witty, sense of humour. Most of her stories make me smile and some make me laugh out loud. Perhaps that’s why the Dalemark Quartet are my least favourite of her novels — they are straight (if that’s an appropriate word) fantasy with little trace of her hallmark sense of fun. You can deal with serious subjects without being solemn, but she doesn’t do that in the Dalemark stories.

    Some of her odder books are for very young children — at least that’s where you’ll find them shelved in the bookshops and libraries. But I can assure you that this very old child (me) found them a delight. “Wilkin’s Tooth” is about two children whose father has stopped their pocket money. Desperate to pay their debts, they organise themselves as Own Back Ltd, a society that specialises in helping other people get their revenge. Unfortunately they then get tangled up with Biddy Ironmonger who is probably a witch…

    And what about “Archer’s Goon”? Howard Sykes comes home from school to find a goon in the kitchen. The goon says that Howard’s dad owes Archer two thousand words and he’s not leaving until he’s got them. So there! There’s magic in words — but Howard’s father refuses to talk about it.

    But my favorite of her quirky books is “Deep Secret” which is about Robert Venables, the junior Magid of Earth. All over the multiverse, the magids are working to keep good and evil in balance. Robert’s boss, the senior magid, has died and Robert must take over. One of his tasks is to search for a new junior. All the possible candidates show off their skills at a science fiction convention.

    Everyone knows that odd things happen at SF conventions. Who is to say that these oddities aren’t job interviews for the position of junior magid? If you’ve ever attended a convention, you’ll recognise all the people in the story. Indeed, you might even recognise yourself, and squirm a little bit even as you laugh.

    But Diana Wynne Jones is not just a fantasist — she writes SF as well. “The Homeward Bounders” and “A Tale Of Time City” for example. She’s nothing if not versatile and for me a new Diana Wynne Jones book is always an occasion for much rejoicing and much lightening of the wallet.

    Do read her books — they’re all different, they’re all fun and there’s a lot of them. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

  5. Hilary Says:

    I’ve read several of her books, but Dogsbody and Howl’s Moving Castle are my two favorites of hers.

    The Guide sounds interesting though. I’d never heard of it before…

  6. Tori Says:

    Rowan just lent me Dogsbody and now I’m even more excited to read it!

    The first Diana Wynne Jones I ever read was Hexwood. Because of the stark contrast between the different settings (This is science fiction? Wait, this next chapter is an urban fantasy. But the next chapter after that is high fantasy? What is going on here??) I found it confusing at first, but it’s so unique that it’s a delight.

  7. Alan Robson Says:

    Tori, you are quite right. It’s that contrast, that sense of dislocation that she does so well. It can be confusing, but I love it because she always knows exactly what she is doing; she never lets me down. And at the end I find myself breathing a deep sigh — so *that’s* what it’s all about…

    But the journey is always the best part of the book. Lots of strange areas to explore.

  8. Jane Lindskold Says:

    I’m enjoying these comments…

    I thought I’d add that in the “Dalemark Quartet” Diana Wynne Jones makes really fine use of the entry on “Embroidery” from the “Tough Guide to Fantasyland.”

    It’s almost a throw-away, but oh… When I saw it, I loved it.

  9. Alan Robson Says:

    As a result of this discussion, I’ve been re-reading “The Tough Guide To Fantasyland”. Oh my goodness, it’s funny, sly and merciless. I particularly enjoyed the entry on HORSES. Did you know they breed by pollination?

  10. heteromeles Says:

    Darian Carter, horse pollinator. Good grief!

  11. janelindskold Says:

    Derian would probably be amused…

    I certainly am.

    But it’s true that many Fantasy Writers have no idea how complex horses are. A few years ago, a local writer who is also an excellent rider invited folks over to show what a trained dressage horse could and couldn’t do.

    I think she was trying to make a point.

    The thing is, do readers care?

  12. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jane,

    There’s a bunch of answers to your question about whether readers care about details:

    1. Ask Neal Stephenson’s fans. He’s made a career out of the details. A lot of tech types (I’m raising my hand, not that you can see) spend their lives on details, and it’s refreshing to see someone who cares about the way we live.

    2. Ask the LOTR fans. I don’t know if you remember, but people were pissed when Peter Jackson started doing Fellowship. Then he trotted out some props, and much of the whining stopped. Why? Even though the props were plastic, they were functional and detailed beyond what the camera could possibly catch. The fans, more or less correctly, figured out that Peter Jackson cared about doing a good job on this film. The little details tell your audience that you care. If we notice that you got the details wrong, that means we have to work that much harder at sustaining disbelief.

    3. Most readers can go over to the specialist book aisle if they want a textbook. I happen to like textbooks because I get their essential artistry, which is to convey a messy multidimensional mass of information in a more-or-less linear fashion. It’s hard to do it well, and I like well-done textbooks because I learn something from them. Yes, I’m weird. The big point is, most people don’t like textbooks, and even I don’t read them for entertainment.

    4. Details are useful in two ways if you’re a novelist. If a horse is a motorcycle substitute, you’re limited to using it as transportation. You can ride it around, it can be disabled, and so forth–the same stuff you would do with a motorcycle (throw a shoe, lose a tire, same difference.). If you know the details, then you can use them to do all sorts of things. A horse’s saddle tack can tell a lot about the owner, for instance, or the type of saddle either enable or limit action. A character who wants to round up cattle needs a western saddle, and if he’s out there in an english riding saddle, he’s in trouble. Additionally, the horse can be a supporting character, even if he/she/it never says anything. Most importantly, you can make what the horse will or won’t do an important part of the story. The trick here is to use the details to enable good storytelling, not to impede it.

  13. janelindskold Says:

    Interesting comment — reassuring and not at the same time, if you know what I mean.

    I, personally, care about details when I write, so I’m not likely to change.

    But I also care as a reader. I get offended by sloppiness.

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