TT: Diana Wynne Jones — Quirky and Wise

JANE: Alan, last week you told me that you wanted to discuss a writer whose work I’ve been reading quite a bit of lately. When you indicated that this writer was Diana Wynne Jones, I was thrilled. Why don’t you start?

My First Diana Wynne Jones novel

My First Diana Wynne Jones novel

ALAN: Probably the first Diana Wynne Jones novel that I read was Howl’s Moving Castle. I was absolutely blown away by the subtlety and depth of the plot, the witty writing and the complete weirdness of the central concept of a castle that is constantly on the move.  The dialogue between Sophie and Calcifer, the fire-demon was brilliantly funny and Howl, the wizard, was suitably eccentric.

As I explored more of Diana Wynne Jones’ worlds, I quickly learned that this was typical of her stories – her plots were generally very convoluted, her prose was consistently witty and often laugh out loud funny and the situations in which her characters found themselves were often extremely bizarre.

JANE: I had a very different introduction to her works.  Have you ever read her novel, Dogsbody?  It is quite dark, incredibly moving, and deeply mythic in the absolutely best sense of that term.

The final sentence is full of beauty and I can rarely tell anyone about it without choking up.  That said, this is not a downer of a book.  It is the absolute opposite.

ALAN: Yes, I have read Dogsbody. Like you, I found it very moving and I was really impressed by the richness and depth of the plot. Taken at face value, it’s a simple story – Sirius, the Dog Star, has been convicted of murder. His punishment is to live as a dog on Earth. He will die there, unless he can find the Zoi, though he is not certain what that might be,

On the surface, that’s very straightforward and it is full of elements that the children she was writing for can appreciate and enjoy. But there’s so much more to it than that.  Her books were always marketed as “Young Adult” stories (and were sometimes aimed at very young children). Nevertheless, her stories often had very adult themes and they were always full of references and allusions that probably went right over the heads of the children. Not that the children would care. They’d be far too wrapped up in the story; her plots were never less than enthralling. But it’s that extra depth, cleverness, and subtlety that make the books so satisfying for adults as well.

JANE: I do like Diana Wynne Jones’ quirky elements a great deal.  However, if it wasn’t for the depth and cleverness – Howl’s Moving Castle is also a brilliant commentary on aging – I would not find her books as wonderful as I do.  It’s easy to be quirky, almost TOO easy, as the boom in repetitive and stupid “humorous” fantasy in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, demonstrated.

It’s humor with heart that has staying power…  Diana Wynne Jones had heart in – well, I can’t resist the pun – spades.

ALAN: She’d have liked your pun. She always enjoyed a good joke. A sense of fun is usually bubbling away just under the surface of even her most serious stories.

JANE:  Yes.  I agree.  For all that I would classify Dogsbody as one of Diana Wynne Jones’s more serious works, one does need to accept a book in which one of the main point-of-view characters is simultaneously and completely a puppy and a stellar intelligence.  I guess that’s quirky.

 Diana Wynne Jones’ gift is that she makes this work so well that I accepted this as easily as I accepted the elements of the plot that focus on Sirius’ human owner, the young Irish-born Kathleen, who lives with her horrible English aunt, her benignly neglectful uncle, and two boy cousins.

ALAN: Yes, that’s exactly correct. One of Diana Wynne Jones’ great strengths was that she could take stories set in the here and now, full of characters you can recognise, and then tie them together with mythological (or in the case of Dogsbody, cosmological) elements and make the stories work without losing the sense of reality.

Another good example would be Eight Days of Luke where David Allard, at home on holiday from boarding school and feeling somewhat bored, accidentally rescues a young boy called Luke who has an odd ability to control fire, although he assures David that he cannot raise the dead.

Soon other strange characters turn up looking for Luke. There’s Mr. Wedding who only has one eye, for example. It soon becomes clear that David is trapped inside a Norse myth – Luke is Loki, of course, and he is as mischievous, a source of trouble as always. The gods are locked in a struggle that will prepare them for Götterdämmerung. But meanwhile they have some problems. Mr. Wedding in particular is not happy with Luke. Perhaps David can help…

JANE: Oh!  I remember that one!  A friend loaned it to me, so I don’t have a copy.  Now I feel a great need to find one.  That’s the problem with Diana Wynne Jones’ books.  They’re like an addiction.  Jim recently went on a binge where he systematically read every one we had in the house.

ALAN: What a wonderful time he must have had! One thing I’ve noticed (and I’m sure Jim must noticed it as well because of reading so many books one after the other) is that even at her most light-hearted, there is always a serious undertone to Diana Wynne Jones’ stories.

In Deep Secret, we meet Rupert Venables who is the junior Magid of Earth. Magids are powerful magicians charged with maintaining the balance between positive and negative magic (presumably white and black magic in our terms) on the worlds they supervise. They seldom act overtly, but they do use their powers to push people into doing the right thing at the right time to make the right things happen. As the story opens, the senior Magid of Earth has just died and Rupert, helped by the ghost of the senior Magid, must choose a new junior Magid. He decides to conduct the examination of the candidates at an SF convention. After all, those things are so peculiar that nobody will ever notice any extra oddities introduced by his examination of the Magid candidates.

And so the stage is set for an, at times, somewhat squirmy tale. Read it, attend the SF convention and recognise yourself and many other people who you know. Diana Wynne Jones tells her story with deep affection and understanding, but she never misses an opportunity to make a barbed remark! The book is an utter delight from start to finish.

But despite all the fun (and it is great fun, make no mistake) there is a real and serious concern at the heart of the story. The magids may be metaphorical in real world terms but when you look at the news headlines, you sometimes wish they were actually here and doing their job.

JANE: Hmm…  I’m not sure I’ve read Deep Secret.  I’ll need to add it to my list.

There are several really important things about Diana Wynne Jones and her work I’d hoped to bring up but the novels – as they should – took center stage.  I’ll save it all for next time.


6 Responses to “TT: Diana Wynne Jones — Quirky and Wise”

  1. Jas. Marshall Says:

    You mentioned “Deep Secret” has parts set at a science fiction convention (and I’ll have to go find it, along with “Dogsbody”). Have you previously discussed what happens when authors decide to crete something fictional set in or around fantasy and science fiction conventions (or just fantasy and science fiction fans)? I can think of a few right away but I’d be curious to know which ones you’ve encountered.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      The only ones that occur to me (apart from “Deep Secret”) are “Bimbos of the Death Sun” by Sharyn McCrumb which is utterly brilliant and “Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats” by Gene DeWeese which I vaguely recall not liking very much.

      Do you know of any others?


      • Jas. Marshall Says:

        There’s a sequel to “Bimbos of the Death Sun” called “Zombies of the Gene Pool.” I think it’s a better book than “Bimbos” but it doesn’t skewer fandom quite as much or with nearly as much humor.

        Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been writing a series of mystery short stories set at science fiction conventions, her “Spade and Paladin” series, which I rather like.

        Jo Walton won awards for her novel “Among Others” which is very much about F&SF fans, although not conventions.

        And a quick internet search found these other mysteries set at SF conventions:
        Rocket to the Morgue by Anthony Boucher. A locked room mystery about San Francisco’s Science Fiction community in the period before WWII.

        SciFi by William Marshall. Murder at a Science Fiction movie convention in Hong Kong.

        We’ll Always Have Parrots by Donna Andrews. Murder at a convention for a fantasy TV series

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    There is this 1971 half of an ACE double by “K. M. O’Donnell”: “Gather in the hall of the planets: Being a novelized version of the remarkable interplanetary events that took place at the World Science Fiction Convention of 1974.” (There was also a title that I now forget – “Mr. Monk in Outer Space,” maybe – in the “Mr. Monk” novels from the TV show, but the author didn’t do much with the idea.) Anyway, it was mystery, not SF.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    I don’t think I’ve read anything by Diana Wynne Jones. I guess I know what to look for the next time I hit the library.

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