The DWJ Project: Hexwood
I said at the end of my last post that I wasn’t sure if I’d ever read Hexwood before. I can say now that I’m 99% I hadn’t — because surely I would have remembered The One Where Diana Wynne Jones Wrote an Episode of Doctor Who.
Seriously, how else am I supposed to describe a book that has dragons, robots, medieval knights, evil galactic overlords, a girl with four not-so-imaginary voices in her head, and a simulation device that might end up assimilating the entire planet Earth? Plus a story that doesn’t quite go according to normal linear chronology. I pity the poor soul who had to write cover copy for this thing. Here’s what my edition has:
Strange things happen at Hexwood Farm. From her window, Ann Staveley watches person after person disappear through the farm’s gate — and never come out again. Later, in the woods nearby, she meets a tormented sorcerer, who seems to have arisen from a centuries-long sleep. But Ann knows she saw him enter the farm just that morning. Meanwhile, time keeps shifting in the woods, where a small boy — or perhaps a teenager — has encountered a robot and a dragon. Long before the end of their adventure, the strangeness of Hexwood has spread from Earth right out to the center of the galaxy.
Me, I would say that the story concerns a device called a Bannus, which was designed to aid in decision-making: given suitable starting parameters, it simulates every possible set of outcomes. It was built by a race of people called the Reigners, five of whom are now basically the aforementioned evil galactic overlords; when a Bannus left on Earth gets out of control, they rush to try and shut it down, but instead the Bannus keeps trapping everything within its simulation.
Does that make any sense? I can’t tell. This book is extremely hard to summarize, and moderately confusing to read, too. I did enjoy it, but you’ve got to be willing to let go of linearity, and be okay with the fact that many of the characters spend most of the book being totally adrift as to who anybody is and what order they’re encountering each other in.
It feels a bit unfair to call this one structurally messy, when the Bannus keeps looping its simulation, so that Ann keeps seeing Hume at different ages, and doesn’t remember being Vierran at all for most of the book. Certainly it’s odd when the story abandons her and Hume and Mordion for a chunk of pages in favor of looking at what the Reigners are up to, but I can’t say what might have been better without actually sorting out the internal chronology of this story, which would take a lot of work — if it’s even possible. The Bannus says near the end that it extended its field through the Reigner’s communication links, so the sense that Reigner One, Reigner Three, and Vierran went to Earth after Martin told Ann about seeing Reigner Four there is presumably no more trustworthy than anything else in the story. It’s like this book has an unreliable narrator, and that narrator is named Time.
So let’s talk about other things. Hexwood has the DWJ thing of really serious unpleasantness in the backstory, though in this case it shows up far more directly than I’m used to; Mordion reliving the memories of how he was tortured as a child is pretty horrible — what Reigner One did to Kessalta! — as is the Reigners’ cold-blooded plan to use Vierran for breeding. (Mordion kind of goes onto the list with Thomas Lynn, Tacroy, Howl, and Mark Lister, of male love interests broken by their pasts, who have to be freed before they can relate to anybody else properly.) It also has a mythical underlayer, though in this case I have to admit my reaction is along the lines of buh? Arthur and Merlin and Fitela kind of come out of nowhere at the end, and those names are decidedly secondary to their identities as the King and the Prisoner and the Boy. Then again, my brain was so busy keeping track of who was whom in the Bannus’ field — Fors = Reigner Four, Ambitas = Reigner Two, Bedefer = John Bedford, etc — that I couldn’t spare a lot of attention for even more layers of secret identity.
I suspect this book would repay re-reading, now that I have (kind of) sorted out what the hell is going on. But that will have to wait; with this, I cross the halfway mark in the DWJ Project, and since I’d like to finish the whole thing before the one-year anniversary of her death, I can’t really spare the time to backtrack.
The project is becoming a bit of a slog at this point, I must admit; middles are like that. Getting through nearly fifty books by a single author in a single year is kind of a marathon undertaking anyway. But I’ve deliberately saved a few of my second-tier favorites for the latter half of the project; I’m nearly done with the stuff I don’t remember very well or never read before, and so it should be pretty clear sailing after this. As always, if you have any specific requests you’d like me to address sooner rather than later, just let me know.