This is a book that I’m re-reading for the first time in perhaps fourteen years. Maybe longer; I’m not sure. Either way, I definitely enjoyed it more this time around, because I wasn’t that into fantasy gaming back then. (Now, I’m a DM for a mostly-all-girls D&D group, which would have surprised the me back then.) And what does that have to do with this book? A LOT.
In The Homeward Bounders, these mysterious beings only referred to as “Them” play with universes and worlds much in the same way we play fantasy war games. Jamie is an ordinary twelve-year-old who, when exploring, accidentally happens upon Them. He doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, but he’s told that he’s now a discard. “You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rule for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner.” Then Jamie finds himself in an entirely different world.
As a Homeward Bounder, Jamie is forced to learn basic survival skills as he’s drawn from world to world, most of them hostile. He learns to pick up languages and to read the signs other Homeward Bounders leave for each other. At first he thinks that it will be an easy thing, jumping from world to world before reaching his own, but by the time he’s thirteen he’s been to about a hundred worlds, and losing hope that he will see his Home again.
He meets with other Homeward Bounders on occasion, including the Flying Dutchman, and he meets a giant who is sort of a Prometheus figure, someone who had tried to tell the worlds about Them and is exiled to a barren world for it. But even when two Homeward Bounders meet on the same world, they often end up in different worlds the next time the Bound calls, so he gets very lonely. Until the day he meets Helen, a new Homeward Bounder from one of the worst worlds Jamie has been on, who manages to cling to him when they travel the Bounds.
Helen has only one arm, but her other arm is magical in nature – she can turn it into an arm if she wants to, or into anything from a snake to an elephant’s trunk. Helen is cranky and mad at everyone and reminds me a lot of Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender, although I suppose I should say that Toph reminds me a lot of Helen, since I had read the book first. I didn’t think I remembered much of the book, but in my re-read, I realise that Helen’s character really stuck with me, because I remember certain aspects of her reappearing in my high school era fanfic. Adding her to my list of favourite characters!
Jamie and Helen also meet Joris, who is a slave obsessed with his demon hunter master, Konstam. The three of them travel together, bickering most of the time. While Jamie is the one with most experience on walking the Bounds, Helen and Joris both are more knowledgable about the universes and they sometimes don’t take Jamie seriously. This becomes a problem when Joris gets caught stealing clothes in a world that is similar to Jamie’s, but more harsh when it comes to following rules/laws. They end up in trouble with a group of children including a boy named Adam who injures Jamie – if it wasn’t for the rule saying that Homeward Bounders can’t be killed, the wound would have been fatal. Adam takes them to his home for first aid, and from their conversation, figures out their situation, since Adam is into war gaming. This would make Adam potentially a Homeward Bounder too. Adam explains the rules of war gaming to them, and they – with Konstam, who appears to “save” Joris, and Vanessa, Adam’s sister – decide to confront Them and to stop Their playing with all the worlds. Oh, and amidst all this, Jamie has an awful (and spoilery, so I won’t write it here) realisation about Home.
I just re-read what I wrote and it sounds hard to understand, and YES it is a very complex book, and a very bleak one, especially considering that it’s meant for children, but this is also a Diana Wynne Jones book. Which means that somehow everything makes perfect sense as I’m reading it, even if I can’t quite get it right in my head after. And that despite the darkness, there’s always that particular brand of humour to lighten things up – I really like Jamie’s voice, something that I’ve forgotten before this re-read (some of my favourite examples are in Readers By Night’s review.) Jamie – and the unnamed giant that he meets – talk about hope and hopelessness a lot, and how each can be both good and bad, and the ending had seemed so defeated and hopeless when I read it all those years ago, but reading it again now, I feel the exact opposite. It’s still sad, but I now also find it hopeful.