Sign up for my newsletter to receive news and updates!

Posts Tagged ‘the dwj project’

The DWJ Project: Reflections

A belated entry to this series, on account of it not being out yet when I finished my re-read of all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books.

Reflections: On the Magic of Writing is a collection of various essays and lectures she gave, on various subjects related to writing (her own and that of others). A couple of these I had read before; “The Origins of Changeover” was the foreword to the edition I read, and I tracked down scans of “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey” after seeing it referenced by [personal profile] rushthatspeaks. (Very glad to now have a proper reprint, as the essay does wonders for my ability to understand certain parts of Fire and Hemlock.) Most of this, though, was new.

It makes for interesting reading, though certainly a few details get repetitive — these pieces span decades, and there are certain things, particularly biographical incidents, that she brought up more than once. The two things that fascinated me most were her knowledge of pre-modern English literature (much of which I haven’t personally read), and her comments on her own books. The former made me feel in places like I was reading [personal profile] pameladean‘s Tam Lin, because it threatened to leave me with a reading list of rather obscure works. The latter . . . I don’t know. Sometimes it strips the magic away to know how the magic got made, but I think that here it just turns into a different sort of magic for me, because I can think about her books as a writer as well as a fan. When she talks about similarities between her characters, I nod at some and blink at others, and wonder if she didn’t see the similarities elsewhere, or simply didn’t bring them up. (Upon reflection, I see what she means about the commonality of Torquil and Tacroy, and also, after much more reflection, Thomas Lynn and the Goon. But what about Tacroy and Thomas, and also Howl? Or for that matter, Mark and Herrel, who are a straight-up deployment of her habit of “splitting” a character type and using different facets?)

I wish we had more of that stuff. I would love to know what sparked the ideas for all of her books, because Diana Wynne Jones wrote books that are nothing like mine, and knowing where they came from helps me understand the result. I also, quite selfishly, want to read all the unrevised first drafts and unfinished beginnings she had stuffed into drawers, because I crave more, and I’m (probably) never going to get it. I know it wouldn’t be the same, and it very well might not be good, but I crave it anyway. This book made me sad all over again that Diana Wynne Jones is dead, and that I never had the chance to meet her. I would have liked to thank her in person, and having read this book, I feel certain she would have understood.

This entry was also posted at Comment here or there.

The DWJ Project: index post

Since it’s annoying to have to page back through archives in search of something, here’s an index post for all of my entries in the Diana Wynne Jones Project, alphabetized by title.

The DWJ Project: Earwig and the Witch

With this, we reach the end.

Earwig and the Witch is an illustrated children’s book (aimed at ages 8-12) published this year, though it was prepared before Jones passed away. It tells the story of a girl called Earwig, who lives quite happily at an orphanage, where she’s able to make everyone do what she wants. But then a very peculiar couple comes along and adopts her, and for the first time in her life, Earwig finds herself facing a challenge.

It’s a short book, of course, and (perhaps because of Paul O. Zelinsky’s illustrations) has a distinctly Roald Dahl vibe about it. If I find myself wanting more — more about Earwig’s friend Custard, and more about the circumstances that led to her being left on the orphanage doorstep, years ago — that’s par for the course, rather than any particular flaw in the story itself.


And of course, I do want more. I saved reading this book until today, and knew that sitting down with it would make me sad, because it’s the last one. There’s a collection of Jones’ essays underway, and I’m looking forward to that; there may be unpublished manuscripts or half-finished books that will yet find their way out into the world. If any such things appear, I’ll read them, because I want to soak up any last drop that I can. But in essence, there will be no more fiction from Diana Wynne Jones.

She was, as I said before, the reason I became a writer. Her books have been with me for more than two-thirds of my life. I don’t love all of them; this re-read has uncovered a number that don’t click with me for some reason, and a few that aren’t very good at all. But her body of work is amazing.

Requiescas in pace, Diana Wynne Jones. And thank you.

The DWJ Project: Changeover

Today is the anniversary of Diana Wynne Jones’ death. In memory of that, I bring you the final two posts of my re-read, which — through design on my part — will cover her first and last published novels.

This, of course, is the first one. It isn’t fantasy (or science fiction), and it was written for adults; as such, it definitely feels different from the bulk of her work. (There are not usually any strip-teases in her books.) And yet — as you would expect — there are touches that come across as familiar, a voice that will show up again and again in later stories.

The plot is (deliberately) farcical. The British government is preparing to hand over the reins of their soon-to-be-former colony, a fictional African country called Nmkwami. One of the governor’s aides, reading out his notes about suggestions to “mark change-over” (that is, to commemorate the handover of power), is misheard; the governor thinks he’s said something about a man named Mark Changeover. The “who’s on first” conversation that ensues leaves the governor with the distinct impression that some kind of rabble-rouser or terrorist is on the loose in Nmkwami. And, because nobody in the bureaucracy wants to admit they haven’t heard anything about such an important problem, the confusion snowballs, until all of Nmwkami, British and local alike, is turned out to hunt the Anarchist-Communist-Imperialist revolutionary Mark Changeover.

I’ll go ahead and put the rest behind a cut, though given how difficult it is to find this book, you guys may or may not care about spoilers. (Many thanks to katfeete for loaning me her copy, thus saving me about ninety dollars buying a used copy online.)


The DWJ Project: “A Slice of Life” (poem)

Endless thanks to carbonel, who saved me from my own obsessive-compulsiveness and sent me the text of this poem in time for the grand finale of this project tomorrow.

. . . of course, there isn’t a lot to say about it. “A Slice of Life” is a forty-line poem (forty-five if you count the days) from the viewpoint of a schoolchild who’s convinced the headmaster has been killed and is being served up piecemeal for lunch throughout the week. It made me think of Shel Silverstein, and also of “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” — does anybody else remember that series?

(Edited to add: I googled to find out why I had the name “Solomon Grundy” in my head — the headmaster is Mr. Grundy — and discovered the poem was clearly inspired by this nursery rhyme.)

It was published in the poetry anthology Now We Are Sick, edited by Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones. I look forward to seeing what else is in there, once my copy arrives.

The DWJ Project: scattered short stories and The Skiver’s Guide

I noticed, when I made my post for Unexpected Magic, that there were (as near as I could tell) three short stories not collected elsewhere, plus a nonfiction humour book, and one poem. (Info taken from here.) That last will, dammit, not be arriving at my house in time to meet my self-imposed deadline of tomorrow — which is the anniversary of her death — but I’ve managed to get all the others.

(Confidential to the Internet: if you have a copy of Now We Are Sick, and the poem is short enough for you to type it up and send it to me, please do. Just so I can finish everything in time.)

The first short story, “Mela Worms,” made me nervous. It’s contained in Arrows of Eros, which is an anthology of erotic science fiction. When you have been reading a certain author since you were nine, and that author writes almost exclusively for children and young adults, it is kind of brain-breaking to contemplate her writing anything in that vein. Fortunately for my sanity, her story is much more on the “speculative” side rather than the “erotic” one, as the titular mela worms, which are necessary for the reproduction of an alien species, get loose on an overcrowded spaceship and wreak havoc. It isn’t the most memorable story of hers ever, but it’s also far from the worst.

The second (and I’m putting these in the order I read them) was “Samantha’s Diary,” in Stories: All New Tales (which may hold the record for most utterly bland anthology title ever). This one is definitely on the weak side; it’s near-future science fiction in which somebody begins sending the narrator Samantha gifts, which the reader will quickly figure out are the gifts named in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Too much of the story, alas, is spent on Samantha being surprised by the day’s deliveries, and trying to figure out where to put all the birds. It eventually diverges from that path, and gets better when it does, but on the whole, this one is skippable. (Unless you’re being ridiculously completist. Not that we know anybody like that.)

The third story, “I’ll Give You My Word,” is probably the best of the lot. It takes place in a version of this world where magic is common, and concerns a pair of children, the younger of whom mostly speaks in nonsensical combinations of SAT-type words. Exactly how his ability ties in with a certain magical threat isn’t as well-established as I’d like, but it’s a very DWJ-ish story, and reasonably fun.

Finally, The Skiver’s Guide is a humorous how-to book on the topic of skiving (or “slacking off,” if you’re not familiar with that word). It wasn’t as funny as I’d been hoping, but that’s largely because it’s a very good anatomy of a personality type I kind of want to punch in the face. So, y’know, props to it for that.

Two more books and posts to go — but if you can get me the poem in time, please do . . . .

The DWJ project: The Time of the Ghost

From my edition’s cover copy:

She doesn’t know who she is or what she is, let alone why she finds herself flitting invisibly through the half-remembered halls and grounds of a boarding school. Can it have something to do with the ancient evil that four sisters unwittingly awoke?

I remember finding this one of the harder DWJ books to read when I picked it up; I think I’d only read it once. Not because it’s impenetrable or anything (though the protagonist’s confusion as to who she is and what’s happened to her do make it harder for me to attach as a reader), but because of the subject matter.

And that was before I found out the horrible parents were based on Jones’ own upbringing.

This book is, I think, the closest thing to horror Jones ever wrote. Apart from the supernatural aspect (the “ancient evil” mentioned in the cover copy), the daily existence of the sisters is far worse than any of them seem to consciously realize. Their neglectful parents are so busy running the boarding school, they can’t be bothered to make sure their daughters get fed. The girls have to go beg dinner from the school cook, who then blames them for not being responsible enough to fend for themselves. I spend large amounts of the book wanting to scream at the top of my lungs at these people.

I appreciate the fact that the sisters are not, in the face of this treatment, perfectly supportive of and caring toward one another; it wouldn’t be realistic if they were. But I kind of want to scream at them, too, and that’s another thing that makes the book hard to read. The extent to which you like it, I suspect, correlates strongly with how able you are to like Cart, Imogen, and Fenella, despite their individual and collective weirdnesses.

And now for the spoilers.


The DWJ Project: Unexpected Magic

Last of the collections, both in terms of my (totally random) reading order, and publication date. It’s also the largest, and contains a number of stories not found in the others; on the other hand, it reprints a lot of the weakest stories from Warlock at the Wheel, and I have no idea why.

Things that are new:

“The Girl Jones” — non-fantasy story about a girl who ends up looking after a bunch of younger children, and screws it up in a way that ensures nobody will ask her to do that again. Not much to this one, and I’m really not sure why it was chosen to open the collection.

“The Green Stone” — sort of proto-Derkholm, from the perspective of the “recording cleric” for a Quest that’s about to begin. Unfortunately, because the cleric doesn’t know much about what’s going on, the plot kind of comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t get fleshed out very well.

“The Fat Wizard” — an iteration of the “unpleasant person gets their just desserts” trope. Better-written than most of the iterations in Warlock at the Wheel or Stopping for a Spell, but still not all that great, and (as the title suggests) it’s likely to bother people offended by her treatment of weight issues.

“Little Dot” — this, however, is fabulous. (And I don’t just say that because it involves cats.) I want, as I usually do, more background for the threat, but this story excellently displays one of Jones’ great talents, which is characterization. Henry’s six cats — sorry, let me correct that; the six cats that own Henry — all have highly vivid personalities, from the brave and resourceful Dot to the gorgeous and deeply stupid Madame Dalrymple. Watching them go to town on the woman who invades Henry’s house is a thing of horrifying beauty. 🙂

The main reason to own this book, though, is for Everard’s Ride, which was published by NESFA Press in 1995, but is almost impossible to find for a reasonable price.

The thing that fascinates me about it that to the best of my knowledge, it’s actually the earliest thing of Jones’ that has been published. Changeover came out in 1970, but the publication notes at the end of this collection say that Everard’s Ride was written in 1966. fjm said in the comments on Witch’s Business that her first couple of novels were meddled with by editorial influence, and reading this makes that quite apparent. Granted, I don’t know how much (if at all) Jones revised Everard’s Ride before its publication, but this feels far more like her style than her first couple of published fantasy novels do.

And there’s enough meat to it that I need a spoiler-cut.


The DWJ Project: A Tale of Time City

Okay, two things first.

1) Has anybody written the fanfic where the Pevensies get kidnapped away to Time City, and Vivian goes to Narnia? Because really.


Ahem. No, seriously though — maybe lactose-intolerant people and such can read the description of a butter-pie and not want one, but my god they sound good. (The name, not so much. But the description . . . yes please.)

Anyway, as for the book itself:

Time City — built eons from now on a patch of space outside time — was designed especially to oversee history, but now its very foundations are crumbling from age. Two boys are convinced that Time City’s impending doom can be averted by a Twenty Century girl named Vivian Smith. They also know that no one will take the wild schemes of children seriously, so they violate nearly every law in the book by traveling back in time to pluck her from a British railway station at the start of World War II in 1939. By the time the boys learn Vivian’s just an ordinary girl, they realize it’s too late to return her safely — unless, with her help, they can somehow manage to get Time City’s foundations back on the right track. It’s either that or she’ll be stuck in the far-distant future forever!

“Wild schemes” is right: Vivian realizes fairly quickly that Jonathan and Sam, the two boys who more or less kidnap her from the railway station, were — well, they were acting like kids. Kids on an adventure, and they didn’t really stop to think the whole thing through before it blew up in their faces. What’s great about that is, Vivian catches herself acting that way a few times, and catches some (supposed) adults at it, too. I think I love that because, really, let’s face it: a lot of us are readers, and if we suddenly found ourselves caught up in events that seemed more like a story than our daily lives . . . well, depending on the events, we’d either shriek and curl into a little ball — or start thinking of ourselves as if we were the protagonists of a book. So that part rings really true to me.

I also love the cleverness of the entire Time City premise. The history of human beings is shaped like a great horseshoe, stretching from the Stone Age up to the Depopulation of Earth, and Time City — perched not only on its own patch of space, but time (which makes it not so much “the far-distant future” as something else entirely) — travels backward along that span, to keep it separate from history. Then there are the polarities, whose nature has been forgotten to the point of making them near-myth, and the stories of Faber John and the Time Lady, who founded the city, and even the political question of how Time City handles tourists from the Fixed Eras, and tries to keep the Unstable Eras from spinning out of control.

(There’s also one other thing that amuses the hell out of me, from the scenes where Dr. Wilander sets Vivian at translation — but that’s a long enough story, and enough of a digression, that I’ll have to do it in a separate post.)

Spoiler time!


The DWJ Project: Power of Three

I’m way behind on posting, so expect a couple more of these soon.

This book, more than any other, illustrates how idiosyncratic my divide is between my first-tier favorites and the second tier. Power of Three is in the latter category, not because of any flaw in the story — it’s excellent, probably one of her best — but simply because it never quite got into my imaginative foundations the way some of her others did. I don’t know what made some books do that, and others not; all I know is that it isn’t a question of quality. This is a wonderful book.

From the back cover copy, because my brain is too lazy to come up with its own plot summary:

Something is horribly wrong on the Moor. Gair and his people are surrounded by enemies — the menacing Giants and the devious, cruel Dorig. For centuries the three races have lived side by side, but now suspicion and hatred have drawn them all into a spiral of destruction.

With the existence of his people threatened, Gair realizes that evil forces are at work. For the Moor is blighted by a curse of ancient and terrifying power . . .

A good summary, except that the final bit is quite wrong. I know it sounds more fantastical to talk about ancient curses, but one of the things I like about this novel is that the curse isn’t ancient. It was placed within living memory — it’s the first thing that occurs in the book — and is the simple, horrifying consequence of somebody being greedy and foolish and violent. And, as in The Magicians of Caprona, it’s at least in part up to the younger generation to undo it. (Not entirely up to them, though. One of the other things I like is the role played by Gest and Adara, and Mr. Masterfield and Mr. Claybury, and at the center of it all, Hathil.)

There are lots of other things to like, too. The little grace notes in the worldbuilding, like the respect Gair’s people pay to bees, and the customs of the Dorig. The perspective on what constitutes magic. The very believable relationships: not only are there lots of great sibling setups throughout this, but once again, as with Caprona, Dark Lord of Derkholm, and a few other books, we get imperfect-but-strong families, instead of abusive parents and neglected children. And the ending is a lovely balance of the mythic and the personal, which is one of the things I have always loved Jones for.

That’s a lot of what I wanted to say, but a few more bits do involve spoilers.