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.

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: Hexwood”

  1. carbonel

    I read this book during my last trip to the UK, having discovered it in a used bookstore. Finding a previously unknown DWJ work was exciting, though I never really got over the fact that book started out as one that — one of my favorite sorts of things, at that — and then morphed into something completely different.

    I should probably give it another try as well, but mostly I remember much of it being an unpleasant muddle after a very promising start.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s definitely a muddle, but it’s one I ended up enjoying. Depending on what it was at the beginning that was your “favorite sorts of things,” it may get back there; it just takes a little while.

  2. jekni

    Sorry to be a grammar-pain but ‘one-year anniversary’ is a tautology. For the first one it’s just ‘anniversary’ and after that it’s ‘second anniversary’, ‘third anniversary’, etc. There is no need to add the word ‘year’ since the ‘anni’ already denotes a year.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hmmm — this wakes up my own curiosity and grammar neepery. 馃檪 To the OED! <whips up the horses>

      Look like use of the word in English started as an adjective, from the Latin anniversarius, “returning yearly” (annus + versus + arius, year + turned + adjective suffix). The primary noun definition given is “The day in any year which agrees in date with a particular day in a former year; hence, the yearly return of any remarkable date, the day on which some event of ecclesiastical, national, or personal interest, is annually celebrated.”

      Based on that, “anniversary” doesn’t necessarily imply the first return of the date, though I will certainly allow that the more limited sense may be the way it’s generally used. (The OED, after all, is not the best guide for usage, especially in the States. This is why we have style guides.) In this particular case, though — allowing for the fact that “one-year” is an admittedly odd phrasing on my part; normally I would have said “first” — I wanted to clarify, for anybody who wasn’t aware, that this project began when DWJ passed away last March, and so I’m aiming to finish not just by the anniversary date in general, but one year after her death.

      • jekni

        I need to get myself one of those, my dictionary is far too small . I guess I was just reacting badly to the number of times that I’ve seen things like ‘six-month anniversary’ and ’10 year anniversary’ lately. The former is a particular bugbear of mine. Being born in the UK and living in Australia I think I’m a little more, ummm, persnickety about that kind of thing than they are in the US (having a teacher for a Mum is responsible for a large part of that, too) where there are, as you say, style guides. I should probably have kept my mouth shut to avoid the insertion of my foot.

        • Marie Brennan

          No worries! You got me curious, and having looked it up, I figured I might as well share what I had found. (My access to the OED is entirely internet-based, alas. One of these days, I’ll live in a house big enough that I can afford to buy and then shelve the physical thing.)

          “Ten-year anniversary” is definitely a less desirable phrase than “tenth anniversary,” but I can see why the latter phrase (which makes sense) would morph into the former (which makes less sense) over time. “Six-month anniversary” is technically a nonsensical phrase . . . but I don’t have any good suggestions for alternatives that would convey the same meaning. Sixth mensiversary? I should stop coining pseudo-Latin words and go to bed. 馃檪

        • green_knight

          To me, ‘anniversary’ means the return of the date something happened -eg ‘the anniversary of so-and-so’s death’ does not give any indication of how many years ago. I’d use ‘the first, the tenth’ etc to denote *which* anniversary.

          A _six-month anniversary_ is stretching the word, but as the English language has no term for ‘this occurred on this date x months ago’ I’d let it stand, particularly if you want to mark the date.

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  4. iopgod

    I remember being muddled the first time I read this, but also that I re-read it immediately and found it much more comprehensible and enjoyable the second time. My brain groups this with Fire and Hemlock, and to a lesser extent Time of the Ghost and Archers Goon, in that I found them even better once I knew what was going on and could keep track of what is important. The other books, though, have much more obviously unreliable narrators.
    My impression is indeed that the Banus was influencing events all across the Galaxy.
    I suspect the Arthur / Merlin / Fenris IDs were mostly used as shorthand, so there wasn鈥檛 as much need to write more backstory in to an already quite complicated book.
    This is one of my favourite DWJs.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I may back up and try this one again after the project is over. This was my first read of it, and it’s definitely complicated enough that I didn’t catch everything on a single pass.

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