The DWJ Project: Witch Week

The back cover of my copy of Witch Week calls it “a wild comic fantasy from a master of the supernatural.”


There are certainly funny bits in this book. (The mop-and-hoe incident comes to mind.) But “wild comic fantasy”? On a micro scale, Larwood House manages to hit almost every abusive-boarding-school trope there is: never warm enough, dreary food, teachers ranging from neglectful to cruel, and all the student-level nastiness you would expect. On a macro scale, the world is one where witches are still burned at the stake, and since half the students at Larwood are witch-orphans, that means half the characters live in fear of the inquisitors coming after them. You know how I’ve been talking about the way Diana Wynne Jones’ books contain these hard edges, but buried in a way that lets you deal with them on your own terms? The hard edges here are scarcely buried at all. I think Witch Week is a very good book, but I almost never re-read it, because I can’t lose sight of how grim it is.

Which is not to say it’s unrelentingly bleak; it isn’t. (I don’t want to scare off anybody who hasn’t read it already.) But you may spend a goodly chunk of the time outraged, before the narrative gets to the point where it says “you know how this world is really messed-up and wrong? Yeah. That isn’t an accident; it’s the real conflict underlying everything else.”

Onward to the spoilers.

In the continuing trend of me paying more attention to the adult characters than I used to, I really feel for Mr. Wentworth. God, his life sucks, and yet he’s remarkably decent despite it. Nirupam I like all the way through; he’s probably my favorite among the students, because he’s relatively sensible. Nan I like once she gets her feet under herself; it’s great to watch her stand up to Theresa et al. And Estelle is also cool once she emerges from the woodwork. Brian . . . Brian reminds me distantly of a kid I knew in junior high, who was very much picked on (though not as badly as Brian). I didn’t know him very well, but then when I did talk to him, he was kind of a jerk to me. Being all of maybe fourteen at the time, I promptly lost a lot of sympathy for him — but of course that feeds around in a circle, doesn’t it? Charles’ surprise that Brian objected to being hit sums it all up, really: he’s so desensitized to the abuse as The Way Things Are that he assumes Brian is, too. (I don’t much like Charles, though I do have a degree of empathy for him.)

And despite what I said above about the grimness, there are some really funny lines. When they all run into each other at Portway Oaks, and Charles thinks Estelle looks like she’s mislaid a horse, and Nan thinks Charles’ mop looks like he’s slain an old-age pensioner. (I much prefer the flexible omniscience of the pov here to the more structured first-person shifting of the Magid books.)

This time through, after having written “And Blow Them at the Moon,” I find myself with a different perspective on the Guy Fawkes thing. Can anybody tell me whether the Editor’s Note at the beginning, explaining Guy Fawkes, is only in American editions? Or do British readers get that, too, making sure that nobody will be confused at the end of the book? Anyway, I’m amused at the way Fawkes is remembered as the centerpiece of the conspiracy, and nobody ever mentions Catesby. I also raise my eyebrows at Nan’s assertion that “he was the kind of man who can never do anything right.” My impression is that he’s become mythologized as this incompetent fool, which is really quite unfair.

The ending, though . . . I love this ending. It comes up over and over again in DWJ’s work: the power of stories and language to change the world. Nan describing what happened, and then Simon, because of Charles’ spell, being able to put it back. They couldn’t have done it without Chrestomanci, but he also couldn’t have done it without them — well, maybe if he went back to Twelve-A and set up a giant spell with lots of help, but that wouldn’t have saved these kids. Littleton would have been and gone, and who knows how many others the inquisitors would have caught in the meanwhile. They saved themselves, with his help. Structurally, it’s the kind of balance I think I look for in Conrad’s Fate, but don’t find, and that’s why I find this book the more satisfying of the two. (One of several reasons, really, but the others are hard to articulate.)

Two more Chrestomanci books to go, and one collection.

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: Witch Week”

  1. la_marquise_de_

    Certainly there’s no foreword about Fawkes in my 1985 UK paperback or the marquis’ 1990 one. Guy Fawkes Night is still a pretty big thing here every year, especially to children.

    • Marie Brennan

      I assumed as much, but figured I should ask; I’ve only ever looked at U.S. editions before.

      The book does slide carefully around saying that Fawkes succeeded at blowing up the Houses of Parliament, until it becomes clear that’s the source of the trouble. I find it funny, though, that Mr. Wentworth saying things changed for the worse in 1606 doesn’t clue Chrestomanci in. My personal interpretation is that this is Christopher not having paid attention in school. 🙂 He knows about Guy Fawkes, but doesn’t remember the date of the conspiracy until somebody brings it up.

  2. chomiji

    Yeah, I can never figure out why the publishers keep trying to shoehorn this into fun-times-at-school-with-magic, as though it were Harry Potter. Somehow they seem to have lost sight of the idea that these kids could be killed quite horribly at any minute.

    Charles is in many ways a very nasty person, but you can see how circumstances have made him so. IIRC, he was shoved off to Larwood House mainly because his parents thought he was a bad influence on his baby brother – that’s enough to curdle anyone’s milk of human kindness. His new reality after the big change at the end always makes me terribly happy, because he seems to once again have the normal home life that any child deserves.

    The funny bits to me seem all the sharper because of all the horror that’s taken for granted. The only other DWJ that strikes me as equivalent is The Time of the Ghost. In both of these, the funny moments strike me as screamingly funny – they’re necessary bits of catharsis.

    I think the parts that make me happiest are when Nan’s very verbal imagination is running away from her. The scene at high table always gets to me, especially when DWJ adds in Nirupam’s attempts to restore normal conversational flow. The way Chrestomanci has to decorate the interrogation chamber in response to Nan’s description is also a lot of fun.

    • Marie Brennan

      They market it that way because a lot of marketing depends on the “if you liked X, you’ll like Y!” comparison. If it gets people in the door and doesn’t leave them feeling cheated afterward, it’s done its job.

      I do see how Charles was made that way, yes, which is why I have empathy for him. But that isn’t the same as liking him. I very much appreciate the shifts that happen after the worlds are rejoined, though; they all make sense and feel just, even down to Brian and Simon being great friends. (And yeah, Nan’s description of the chamber, and Chrestomanci’s response to it, are great. <g>)

      The Time of the Ghost is another one I don’t often read, because there’s such hardness there, and so little to cover it.

  3. Marie Brennan

    I had a remarkably non-traumatic experience with school, so for me it was more a window on a reality I didn’t quite want to believe in.

  4. iopgod

    I think this is one of my favorites… certainly I think Nan’s description of the class is a really excellent bit of commentary on how school classes seem to work: it would have needed very little alteration to fit several of mine.

    My (UK) edition dosnt have an editors note on Guy Fawkes: what does it say? I think most people over here would have come across the story of Guy Fawkes at a fairly early age in the context of bonfire night and “remember, remember the fifth of November”. I suspect, from references that US writers seem to assume everyone knows, that stories about Paul Revere riding around in the night or George Washington and apple trees would have similar levels of recognition in the US.

    • Marie Brennan

      The note explains that he tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5th, 1605, and Guy Fawkes Day is still celebrated with bonfires and effigies and so on. And yeah, I think your comparison is apt, except that we don’t really have the holiday associations with those examples.

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