Thursday, October 4, 2012

Diana Wynne Jones

I have four authors whom I consider to be my ideals – four authors whose writing and plots and characters are so amazing that my goal is to someday write a book as wonderful as one of theirs. Will it ever happen? We’ll see, but it’s good for me to have lofty goals to encourage myself. Those writers are Joseph Conrad, Terry Pratchett, Patricia McKillip, and Diana Wynne Jones.

Of those four, Diana Wynne Jones is the most eminently readable, and definitely one of the most fun. She creates lovely, inventive worlds, spins plots that are so dizzyingly complex that they make your head spin – except that they’re not hard at all to follow. What Melanie said about Howl’ Moving Castle  is true for all her novels: you almost never know what’s happening until the very end, and then rereading is just as fun so you can pick out all the parts that you missed. And to top it all off, she has an absolutely fantastic sense of humor.

In the comments section of Melanie’s post, she asked me for my favorite DWJ books, so here they are. I’m trying to assiduously avoid spoilers. I'm also doing a completely inadequate job of conveying the plots, so trust me that they're a lot more fun than I make them sound.

The Quick Version
Having a busy day? Need to go to the library without reading through all the fangirl gushing? Go check out (or buy) Howl’s Moving Castle. Already read that? Try out Dogsbody or Deep Secret, or maybe the Dark Lord or Derkholm (sensing a letter theme here).

My very first DWJ book, and one of my two absolute favorites as a child (the other was The Silver Crown, by Robert C. O’Brien).  

The star Sirius is convicted of a crime he did not commit. As punishment, he must find the weapon used to commit the crime. The other stars send him down to Earth in the body of a dog in order to find the weapon.  Except he starts out as a newborn puppy without any powers or hardly any of his usual senses. On top of that, he gets adopted by a little Irish girl living with English relatives in the heart of the conflict between Northern Ireland and England, and is torn between protecting her and finding the weapon that could redeem him and send him home.

Part of my love for this book might be 100 percent pure nostalgia. But Kathleen is such a lovely character, and the ending breaks my heart a little each time I read it.

Howl’s Moving Castle

 Sophie is a heroine to set the bar for all others. So a witch has turned her from a teenager into an eighty year old woman? No problem! Now she can finally stop worrying about what others think about her, and go to seek her fortune. And while she’s at , she might as well invade the Wizard Howl’s castle to see where he’s hidden all the hearts of village girls he’s stolen. She sets herself up righteously cleaning his castle of spiderwebs and grime, and before long finds herself making a deal with the fire demon that guards Howl’s hearth. To make it worse, she’s being stalked by a scarecrow, and one of her sisters seems to be falling in love with Howl, a man who spends way more time in the bathroom each morning than the average female.

How can I possibly capture the fun that is Howl? He’s dashing, vain, cowardly, and utterly charming. Calcifer (the fire demon) and Sophie are wonderful characters as well, and I really want to learn to sing the saucepan song.

See also sequels that feature the main characters from this book in minor roles: Castle in the Air (never trust a genie), and House of Many Ways (can Howl really handle a toddler by himself?)

Deep Secret

For a little bit older readers.  DWJ has a fascination for multiple connected dimensions. In this book, the Magids are in charge of balancing the magic of all dimensions. Rupid is in charge of finding the newest magid, except that all of his candidates seem to be either psychotic, or evil, or fond of doing ritual dances in the middle of busy bridges. So where better to gather them together at a fantasy convention, to see if any show any hint of potential? And who in a fantasy convention will notice a death curse or two?

(See also sequel “The Merlin Conspiracy”, which contains one of the greatest lines about romance ever: “The thing about fancying a girl is, you have to take personality into account – even at 5:30 in the morning”).

Dark Lord of Derkholm

Imagine taking a vacation to a real world of dragons, wizards, and dark lords. That’s what Mr. Chesney’s tours offer. Problem is, the inhabitants of the fantasy world are tired of playing the roles Mr. Chesney’s tours require of them, and of ransacking their own villages to make them look more authentic.  The wizards of the fantasy world consult an oracle to find out how to defeat Mr. Chesney and the demon whom he uses to control the world. The oracle’s advice is to appoint the Wizard Derk as the Dark Lord for the tours.  Derk is not happy about this – he’d really rather busy himself creating new magical animals and living with his wife and seven children (two human, five griffin). 

So Derk has to try to convert his lovely home into a Dark Fortress, march several hundred of his Evil Forces to their camp, and deal with cranky teenagers (human and griffin) , ornery geese, senile dragons, confused dwarves, and carnivorous sheep, all while trying to hold his family together and keep his world from completely falling apart.

It’s possible that in this case, I love the sequel (Year of the Griffin) even better than the original – but you do have to read the first book in order to properly appreciate the sequel.

Chrestomanci series

This is another series that focuses on multiple dimensions, except this time, there are nine worlds, and only the nine-lived enchanter who carries the title of Chrestomanci can keep the peace.

These books are nearer to the bottom of the list because they each have their flaws. I can’t stand Cat as the hero of Charmed Life (so passive and whiny!), but yet young Christopher is not nearly as fun as a boy as when he’s grown up Chrestomanci.  The series is worth reading for the character of Chrestomanci, who is very stylish and a little bit snobby, and who (despite his best efforts) is always being fetched away to important tasks in his dressing gown.

The fifth book, Conrad’s Fate, is actually my favorite, with Chrestomanci as an arrogant teenager, but it might not be as fun if you haven’t read the other books.  And if you’re really a Chrestomanci fan, the collection of short stories called Mixed Magics is quite fun.

Fire and Hemlock

Shy, lonely Polly meets a shy, mysterious Tom Lynn when she sneaks into a funeral. The two start exchanging letters in which they make up a magical world and story, one that Tom seems to put more stock in than just a game. But then they start to see signs that their story might be influencing the world around them in small ways – or is it much bigger than that?

Okay, I’m massively failing in describing this story. This is one of the ones, like Time of the Ghost and Hexwood, where trying to describe the twisty, crazy plot would take away from the effect of discovering it. 

Are there any fantastic DWJ stories that I've missed? What are everyone else's authors whom they wish to emulate? Does anyone even own a dressing gown these days? 

Unfortunately, Diana died just last year. It absolutely breaks my heart that there won't ever be any new books released by her for me to discover. I'm fairly certain I've read them all at this point - except Enchanted Glass, one of the very last books she ever published. I'm not sure how long it's going to sit on my shelf, just so that I have the knowledge that there is one more book of hers to discover. In the meantime, I'm still enjoying catching all the nuances of plot in the works I've read.

Rest in peace, Diana. Thank you for inspiring me.


  1. I loved this post. Thank you for reminding me why Diana Wynne Jones! To show my gratitude, I'll give you the name of Calcifer's saucepan song. It's Sosban Fach. You can google it for the lyrics, and since it's such a well known Welsh folk song, I'll bet you can find it on YouTube to help with the pronunciation and tune. Thanks again Sabrina! Wonderful post!

    1. That should say "why I love Diana Wynne Jones!" I hate commenting from my phone. I always leave out entire words when I do.

  2. I definitely need to read more Diana Wynne Jones. Great post Sabrina!

  3. I haven't even read most of those! I'm so excited. I've had Dogsbody in my hands several times, but I never seem to actually open it. Now I will. I love all the Chrestomanci books, and all the Howl books, though the first one is heads and shoulders above the rest. I finished Enchanted Glass right after DWJ died, and it was bittersweet. Great post! And I can't wait til I have time to look up the saucepan song. :)

  4. Wonderful post about an extraordinary author! I love, love Howl's Moving Castle and just loaned my copy to the daughter of a friend. I'm hoping she, too, falls in love with it.

    Thanks for the synopsis of the others. I've read a few of them, but obviously not enough.

  5. Of all my most favorite DWJ books, the only one you missed-- unless we just have a difference of opinion!-- is Archer's Goon. The ending felt a bit rushed and cobbled together, but that's probably her most common fault as a writer anyway, so I let it slide in favor of enjoying the utter ridiculous of the characters and the way they interact and the family dynamics (both good and bad) at work. I read that book right after I read CATCHING FIRE, and I was at first amazed that something could even hold my attention after that adrenaline rush, let alone completely sweep me up.

    Sophie is one of my most favorite characters ever. I'm in love with her, and I'm not even attracted to women. I do on the other hand have a crush on Chrestomanci. And on Derk. I have a wide variety of tastes, apparently.


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