Like Witch’s Business/Wilkin’s Tooth, I’m not sure why this book got retitled. My guess is they wanted something that might at least vaguely signal fantasy, as Aunt Maria could be any kind of book at all, but it doesn’t work very well; the book makes only one use of the phrase, in the first paragraph of the book (comparing their family situation to the card game Hearts, aka Black Maria), and to a U.S. eye it otherwise calls up weird, semi-racial connotations. Or at least it does for me, because fantasy so often uses “black” to signal “evil.”
Anyway, the book. It falls into the “somebody is utterly horrible under the guise of being perfectly reasonable; long-suffering protagonists put up with it for too long” sub-genre of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but as I’ve said in previous posts, it works better here than it does in the short stories. Telling that story at book-length means other aspects come in, diluting the horrible behavior and making it less unrelentingly awful. (Though it’s still plenty awful. Aunt Maria, so far as I’m qualified to tell, is a master of the Manipulation Handbook.)
The general setup for the plot is that Mig and her family (mother and brother) get suckered into spending their Easter holiday visiting — read, waiting hand and foot on — Aunt Maria, who is actually the aunt of Mig and Chris’s recently-deceased father. When they get to Cranbury-on-Sea, they find the town is deeply weird, with zombie-like men, weird clone-like orphan children, and a bevy of old ladies who seem to form some kind of ruling cabal. They rapidly figure out that the surface niceness covers some stuff that isn’t nice at all.
Moving on to more spoiler-ish details — the gender thing in here is odd, and made me decide to read A Sudden Wild Magic next, as that was published right after this one, and (if I remember correctly) has similar weird gender stuff in it. Since my other current book-blogging project is the Wheel of Time, I appreciated the fact that the core premise in this book was “hey, maybe enforcing a division between men’s magic and women’s magic is a bad idea,” but the way it played out . . . I dunno. I think part of my issue is that, Nathaniel Phelps notwithstanding, it comes across like the women are the problem, and the men are, generally speaking, the good guys. But I don’t think that’s what DWJ intended — Chris explicitly questions that interpretation, at one point — so it feels like she didn’t quite succeed at what she meant to do.
Part of it is also that, while I find the under-layer interesting (using that as a general term for DWJ’s habit of having there be a hidden backstory in her books), it isn’t fleshed out quite as well as I’d like. The situation with Mig’s father is oddly like a side-note to the more important story involving Antony Green; I expected it to be more relevant and emotionally fraught. Antony Green, on the other hand, is fascinating, but toward the end of the novel I feel like the focus shifts too heavily onto him, sidelining Mig and Chris and her mother, so that they become spectators to the end of the story. It’s something that happens in other DWJ books, too — The Homeward Bounders comes to mind — but I was more dissatisfied by it here.
I did, however, very much like Mig’s mother, and the sense of humour the entire family had. (E.g. “I agree with [how good a girl I am], for the sake of peace, though it always makes me want to say, ‘Well, really, I’m just off to burn the church down on my way to the nudist colony.”) It’s easy in this kind of story to relegate the mother to an irrelevant or adverserial role, but even when the spell was making her dig her heels in over Chris’ disappearance, I really liked her as a character. Also, retrospective-narration-in-progress technique, where Migs is writing the story down episodically in her diary, works better here than it did in the Magid books, likely because it doesn’t have to shift between two characters doing the same thing.
I’d only read this book once before, and didn’t have much memory of it; I enjoyed it well enough on this trip through, but don’t think I’m terribly likely to revisit it. Some of that, though, in this case and others, may just be an artifact of when I read the books; I’m pretty sure I encountered this one in college, after the years when I was really forming my bond with her books. You rarely love the later ones quite as much, y’know?
A Sudden Wild Magic will likely be next.