The hidden leaders of magical society on Earth discover that a neighboring universe is using our world as an experimental laboratory: siccing problems (like global warming) on us with the intent of seeing how we cope with them. They mount an expedition to put an end to the problem.
My recollection is that when I was a kid, most of Diana Wynne Jones’ work was shelved in the children’s department; this book, however, was in the nascent Young Adult section. It’s certainly aimed at an older readership. The only work of Jones’ I can think of that’s comparable is Deep Secret, a later (and more successful) book. This one doesn’t seem to be anybody’s favorite — though I could be wrong — and a great many people don’t like it at all. So bear that in mind when you decide whether to read the spoilers that follow.
If I had to sum up the core trouble I have with this book, it’s that its attention is way too scattered over too many characters and ideas, with the result that none of them get the attention and development they need. (There are at least ten pov characters, possibly more.) In the case of certain aspects — like the all-male, monastic society of Arth, and the decision of the sabotage team to undermine them with sensuality and sex — that lack of sufficient development makes them weird and troubling.
Like Black Maria, I’m not entirely comfortable with the attempt to tackle gender issues head-on, partly because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from this particular attempt. Leathe is matriarchal and nasty; Arth is patriarchal and nearly as unpleasant, at least where the High Head is concerned. So, gender segregation is bad? That’s awfully heavy-handed. And it doesn’t fit in very well with the notion of idea theft and its effects on the world of the Pentarchy — an issue that gets left until remarkably late in the tale, for something that is supposedly the core of the novel. I would be interested in the thing with Marceny splitting Herrel/Mark — it’s another iteration of the trope we’ve seen with Thomas Lynn and Tacroy and and Howl — but it doesn’t mesh very well with her psychic vampirism or the theft of ideas from Earth or the ossified traditions of Arth or, well, anything. You could have had an interesting story about Zillah and Mark/Herrel and Marceny, or about Arth and its repressed vibrations, or about Earth as the Pentarchy’s screwed-up laboratory, but those three things don’t seem to belong in a novel together.
(Also — maybe because I’ve been re-reading the Wheel of Time — I have zero patience for the obvious stupidity and prejudice that abounds in this story. Amusing as it is that nobody on Arth appears to have taken a good look at Earth conditions since the age of the dinosaurs, the actual playing out of everybody’s wrong assumptions drives me batty.)
Based on the evidence of this and Deep Secret, I have to say that DWJ doesn’t seem to have been very adept at writing about sexual tension or attraction. She tends to go at it head-on, but only in passing. That isn’t a huge issue in Deep Secret, where that aspect of the relationship between Rupert and Maree is only a small element in the story; here, where it’s one of the main weapons the surviving attack team is using against the Brothers of Arth, it’s much more of a weakness. Where DWJ writes about adults elsewhere — at least in the books I’ve covered so far in this project — she mostly leaves sex out of the picture; it doesn’t come up with Howl and Sophie, for example, beyond aesthetic attraction. (Even Howl’s womanizing is put in terms of getting girls to fall in love with him.) The only successful counter-example I can think of is the brief moment Tom and Polly take for themselves before they pass through the gates of Hunsdon House in Fire and Hemlock.
It feels like DWJ, having set out to write for older readers, stiffened up and didn’t approach it naturally, in a way that would let her strengths come through. There are details I like in this book, but they’re too fleeting, weighed against the confusion that results from everything else being thrown in here. I probably prefer it to, say, Witch’s Business (aka Wilkin’s Tooth), which suffers the opposite problem, but it’s definitely in my bottom tier of her work.
Re-reading Hexwood now, which I remember not at all. I think I read it once, but I might not even be right about that. We’ll see.