DWJ ReRead · Fantasy

The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones

The first time I read it my brain was in this fuzz, right after The Spellcoats, because I got the omnibus editions which are always a bad idea (for me). Not that I had any other choice back then. I rushed through the book, thought it was nice enough, and forgot all about it.

This is my second time experiencing The Crown of Dalemark, this time on audio, forcing me to take my time instead of rushing, and I am so in love with this whole quartet. WHY DID I NOT SEE THE BRILLIANCE OF THIS QUARTET BEFORE.

The book starts with Mitt, who’s in North Dalemark after the events in Drowned Ammet. He had been training to be a hearthman when he was tasked to murder Noreth Onesdaughter, who claimed to be the true Queen of Dalemark and wanted to reunite the lands. But then, it changes perspective to 200 years in the future, where a girl named Maewen meets an Undying who sends her back to the past (Mitt’s present) to take Noreth’s place, as the real Noreth had disappeared, and Maewen looked exactly like her. Continue reading “The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones”

DWJ ReRead · Picture Book

Yes, Dear by Diana Wynne Jones & Graham Philpot

yesdearIn the same year Diana Wynne Jones published her first adult fantasy, she also published her first (and only, as far as I know) picture book. Yes, Dear is a sweet narrative with folky, sometimes dreamlike art by Graham Philpot.

Kay is a child with a large family that largely ignores her. They aren’t unkind, or outright neglectful, but everyone – her brothers, sisters, and parents – are too busy with their gardening or music or washing to attend to her. This story is set only within one day in her life, but I get the feeling that the absent-minded “yes, dear”, “run along, don’t bother me/us” are words that Kay hears often.

In this story she finds a leaf that turns out to be magic. It turns her sand pies real, and made a huge red rose with a caterpillar that talked, and conjured up a band, among other things. Kay tries to tell her family this, but of course, no one listens. In the end, she finds one member of the family that does – her grandmother.

Being a picture book, Yes, Dear is nowhere near as complex or exciting as her novels, and really is rather predictable. But it’s still pretty DWJ-esque, to me. We don’t really know if her leaf is magic or if it’s all her imagination, but it doesn’t matter – as a young child, Kay and her adventures are overlooked by most of her family. Even though it’s been forever since I was a child, I can still remember the frustration with how oblivious the adults around me used to seem, how impervious they were to magic. (And when you’re a child, every little thing can be magic!) This is something that happens a lot in DWJ’s books, where the children would end up taking charge because the adults are either too inept or cowardly or too busy adulting to do much. And Kay’s grandmother is the only one who listens, and is able to see and recognise magic, because eventually those of us that grow out of fairy tales do grow back into them.

The art is quite dated, which works in the book’s favour to me personally. This book was first published in 1992, so it wasn’t really when I was young enough for picture books, but the art makes me feel a complicated sort of nostalgia, because while I didn’t exactly enjoy childhood, this book reminds me of all the better parts of it. The hairstyles and the clothes and the rooms (especially the rooms) look so familiar, it’s as if I was wandering around in my then best friend’s house – and her house had been a sort of sanctuary for me, so I remember things like reading The Neverending Story together, and her older sisters’ homemade cookies, and us making up fairy stories that made me feel like I had this soft fuzzy sort of protection against my building anxiety. And yeah, this is all very personal, so I figure others may enjoy or dislike the art for other reasons, but it’s hard for me not be biased about it.

Anyway, that was 1992. In 1993, DWJ would finally publish the final book of the Dalemark Quartet, The Crown of Dalemark. It’s been so long since my reread of the previous Dalemark books I wonder if I ought to reread them AGAIN before starting on the fourth.

DWJ RE-READ no. 44 | Yes, Dear (1992)
previous read: A Sudden Wild Magic
next read: The Crown of Dalemark

DWJ ReRead · Fantasy

That time I read A Sudden Wild Magic

suddenwildmagicThere are multiverses, and this never seemed to matter very much, until a mage who is also very good at computers discovers that all – well, many – of the bad things that happened in our world, from the world wars to the great depression and even global warming, were a result of our world being toyed around with by wizards in another universe. Basically, the mages of Arth put us into situations where we would have to invent things or solve certain problems, after which they would steal the ideas for their own world.

Mark, the mage who discovers all this, went to Gladys, the wisest (and kookiest) witch he knew. And somehow this all led to a group of witches being sent to Arth and sabotage the evil otherworld mages with, among other things, kamikaze sex.

Er… maybe I should back up a bit.

This is a Diana Wynne Jones novel, yes, but this is not a children’s or YA fantasy.

After Changeover (the debut novel I probably won’t ever get to read), all of the published DWJs were for children/teens… until 1992, when A Sudden Wild Magic was published. Of course, even before I started this book, I thought of DWJ’s essay “Two Kinds of Writing?” in which she wrote about some unspoken assumptions about grown-up vs. children’s/teen fiction:

I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers.

Starting on the first chapter, this was what I noticed the most – longer explanations about everything. I showed the first page to Kit, whose desk is next to mine at work, and she said it gave her a headache. I found A Sudden Wild Magic to be a bit weird, but still somehow, very Diana Wynne Jones. There’s the protagonist that doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of themselves, but everyone who knew them seem to admire, until they slowly become aware of their own inner strength. There’s the mention of bad, horrible parents, and in this book, on how that could go on to influence the kind of adult you became. There’s the wordplay and sly jokes and things that are fun buy may not make much sense in terms of the plot until you get to the end and all the pieces just fit together perfectly. I also thought that this particular novel reminded me a lot of Doctor Who, a feeling that I didn’t get with her other novels. And when I reread “Two Kinds of Writing?”, I saw that DWJ mentioned that “anyone who can follow Dr. Who can follow this in their sleep.”

So. This book has “sex, violence, politics, and the arcane skulduggery of science or magecraft”, which, as mentioned in her essay, were also apparent in DWJ’s children’s books, only not spelled out loud with 100% more explanation and more Doctor Who vibes. All of which spells “perfectly good read” to me, even if it won’t be in my top ten favourite DWJs. I dragged out my reading for as long as I could, gleefully savouring the feeling of reading a “brand new” Diana Wynne Jones, and finished it with the sober realisation that this was the last novel in my “reread” list that I had to read for the first time. I could always reread it, of course, and the whole point of my DWJ reread is that every read brings out something new, but still. Not counting Changeover, there are no new worlds from her for me to discover. That made me sad, and I kind of dread reaching Chaldea in my rereads, even though I know that after that, I could always start all over again.

(Happy Friday the 13th! Also, Zillah Green is probably in my list of top ten favourite DWJ characters. But I’ll write more on that one day, when I reread this book.)

DWJ REREAD no. 43 | A Sudden Wild Magic (1992)
previous read: “A Slice of Life”
next read: Yes, Dear

DWJ ReRead · Poetry

“A Slice of Life” by Diana Wynne Jones

nowwearesick“A Slice of Life” is a poem published in the anthology Now We Are Sick, edited by Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones. This book is currently out of print, but some editions bear the subtitle “An Anthology of Nasty Verse”, and that’s basically what it is. Among the authors included in the anthology are Brian Aldiss, Terry Pratchett, S.P. Somtow and Alan Moore – so I knew to expect a good variety of nasty, which is what I got.

Diana Wynne Jones’ contribution is a week’s worth of verses by a student narrating their school lunches. Of course, if you’ve read Witch Week you’ll know that Diana Wynne Jones can describe food in a way that makes you see worms instead of pasta or brains instead of peas. And this is what goes on in the poem, along with the student’s suspicion that they were really eating one of their teachers, who had been missing from Day 1.

I almost skipped this title when I was looking up DWJ’s uncollected stories and poetry because (1) it’s a poem, and (2) the anthology was pretty hard to come by, but I’m glad that I did get it in the end – besides the appropriately nasty poem that I would’ve appreciated so much when I was still in school, I enjoyed most of the other poems from the anthology that I’ve read. Some of them were more darkly whimsical in nature, while others were outright gross, they’re mostly funny as well. Probably should have included this in my RIP challenge last month. Never mind; I will be finishing it this weekend, and maybe reread it next October.

My next DWJ read will be A Sudden Wild Magic, which I haven’t read before – can’t wait!

DWJ RE-READ no.42 | “A Slice of Life” (1991)
previous read: Black Maria
next read: A Sudden Wild Magic

DWJ ReRead · Fantasy · Horror

Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones

“And I won’t bother with breakfast, now Lavinia’s not here to bring it me in bed, dear,” was Aunt Maria’s final demand. Mum promised to bring her breakfast on a tray at eight-thirty sharp. It’s a very useful way of bullying people. – Black Maria, Diana Wynne Jones

blackmariaMy current copy of Black Maria is also my first copy, which is kind of rare when it comes to my DWJ books – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lent it out before. I received my copy from a classmate back in high school. Even now, I wonder about it – we weren’t close, and it wasn’t a special occasion, but one day she presented me with the book with a note saying she knew I loved Diana Wynne Jones. (As a result, she is one of the very few classmates I still remember now.) Anyway, the first time I read it, I thought – how gloomy. Diana Wynne Jones’ books aren’t exactly all cheery, and books like Homeward Bounders are pretty dark, but the gloominess of Black Maria struck me deeper, probably because it was a gloominess I knew all too well from my own childhood.

Another thing about Black Maria is that even though it was first published in 1991, it was really written before The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988). Since I’m reading in published order, I figure I may as well make a note of that here. In “A Whirlwind Tour of Australia” (published in Reflections), Diana Wynne Jones wrote that unlike some of her other books that were published long after they were written, Black Maria was suppressed by her. The reason? It was too frightening. To me, it isn’t a direct sort of horror – it is that utter gloominess, a claustrophobic sort of dread and resignation that comes with having to live with someone like Aunt Maria.

Mig Laker and her brother Chris had never met their father’s Aunt Maria, not until his sudden death. Then, after a series of phone calls from poor, frail Aunt Maria who reminds them that they were her only family left, their mother takes them to Aunt Maria’s for a holiday.

It didn’t take long for the Lakers to realise that Aunt Maria – who appears to be so cozy and cuddly – rules the village of Cranbury-on-Sea. She’s the queen bee, flanked by the twelve women who live down the street. All the men might as well have been zombies in suits. And all the other children seem like clones, even if they don’t resemble one another physically. On top of that, there’s a ghost haunting Chris’ room, and a cat that looks uncannily like one of Aunt Maria’s previous servants.

For most of the book, you get the feeling that something is off, and that it was more than Aunt Maria’s pretense at frailty to manipulate everyone around her, and more than the enforced gender stereotypes that made all the women tending to Aunt Maria and the men “away” all the time. Mig played along at first, letting her brother take the active role (as a boy, he was encouraged to be outdoors while Mig had to help her mother look after Aunt Maria). But as Chris’ attitude towards Aunt Maria gets more and more rude – providing for some of the best laughs in the book – and Aunt Maria gets more awful but in this unbearably SWEET way until she finally does something to get Chris out of her way for good. This forces Mig to take the lead, to uncover the truth about the people of Cranbury-on-Sea so that she could find a way to get her brother back.

The whole story is written from Mig’s point of view, so it is only from here onwards that we truly see beyond the tea parties and coziness to all of the darkness running underneath. I love that Mig’s adventure recalls some of my favourite fairy tale tropes but of course, this being a Diana Wynne Jones book, everything is flipped over and nothing is what it seems. I had remembered this book as a horror, and in my reread I realised that it’s not REALLY horror, but it’s got elements of horror. And it has SF elements but it’s more of a fantasy – reading it, I remembered DWJ’s mentions of not wanting to be boxed in by genre in Reflections. I guess it gets claustrophobic, just like the villagers of Cranbury-on-Sea being forced into specific male/female stereotypes. I really hate the whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality, and loved the way it’s treated in this book. In the end a person is a person, and a good book is a good book, and Black Maria makes a great Halloween reread.

* published as Aunt Maria in the US. Sadly, both US and UK versions are out-of-print now.
**reread earlier in the year, but reread again for the RIP Challenge.

Other Reviews:
Iris, Books & More | Shelf LoveThings Mean A Lot | We Be ReadingThe World Crafter

DWJ RE-READ no.41 | Black Maria (1991)
previous read | Castle in the Air
next read | “A Slice of Life”

DWJ ReRead · Fantasy

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

castleintheairAfter reading short stories for the last few DWJ posts, I was really glad to finally get to a novel again. And not just any novel – Castle in the Air is an Ingary book, the first of two companion novels to Howl’s Moving Castle. While I’m sure I’ve reread this book a few times before (unlike House of Many Ways, which I’ve only read once!) it’s been a long time since my last read, so I was definitely eager to start on it. And then I started, and… it was so much better than I remembered.

Despite being called the “sequel” to Howl’s Moving Castle, this book is really only just set in the same universe – DWJ never did direct sequels to any of her books. But this book isn’t just a story in the same world with some of the same characters; it starts in a place that is so unlike Ingary that it may make some wonder if it really is a companion novel. The setting is more Middle Eastern than European, more Arabian Nights than Cinderella. The main character is Abdullah, a carpet seller in a bazaar who would rather spend his days daydreaming of faraway castles and princesses. In typical fairy tale fashion, this soon comes true when Abdullah acquires a magic carpet that takes him to see a princess called Flower-in-the-Night.

At first Abdullah thinks that the meeting is just a pleasant dream, because it resembles his daydreams just a tad too much. As he begins to accept the truth, he also falls for the princess, right before she gets captured by a djinn, who has been going around stealing all the princesses of all the lands.

I really enjoyed the story the first time I read it – and, not knowing that it was supposed to be a sequel/companion, I was surprised and pleased when Sophie and Howl made their appearances in the story. I don’t think I remember anything more than that, and reading it again now, I find that the story’s connection to HMC is far from the most interesting thing about it, because:

(1) This is a DIANA WYNNE JONES story, in a FANTASY MIDDLE-EASTERN SETTING, what’s not to like? Many of the characters aren’t white, and in fact, have names that I hear every day, which is rare for kid!me to find in fantasy novels (or any juvenile fiction). And speaking of the names – while this story plays on tropes related to A Thousand and One Nights, it isn’t LIKE the other fiction I’ve read that uses these tropes. Recently I was reading Noel Langley’s The Tale of the Land of Green Ginger which was written as a sequel to Aladdin, and I absolutely loved it, but I couldn’t help but notice the weird names (like Rubdub Ben Thud and Tintac Ping Foo) and how it just meshed a bunch of different cultures and stereotypes into this one big exotic fantasy world. Like Arabian Nights. But Castle in the Air doesn’t do this, even though it’s set in an entirely different world. Abdullah’s family have normal names (Fatima, Hakim), and the only weirdly named person is Flower-in-the-Night, which isn’t explained, but at least acknowledged within the story. There’s a wide variety of personalities among the characters introduced, so I don’t get the feeling that any of them are stereotyped other than in the usual comic!villain/romantic!hero, fairy tale sort of way – and even those stereotypes tend to fall apart or get subverted, in typical DWJ fashion.

(2) I also enjoyed the language in this book. Oh, all the floral politeness! It’s so superb, and I love that it stems from an actual cultural thing, but exaggerated and twisted, of course. The way Abdullah barters insults with his enemies just gets increasingly hilarious as the story goes on. I read a few passages out loud to my dad, and despite not being the sort of person who got/liked fantasy, he ended up quoting those passages to his friends (sorry, dad’s friends) for a week.

(3) The character development. Abdullah starts the story as this lazy downtrodden person who would rather dream about things than go about achieving them, and then he goes on this journey in which he finds all sorts of situations that forces him to be clever and to prove himself and HE DOES EXACTLY THAT. I like him learning to challenge his own opinions on things – like his realisation that polygamy is unfair, or coming to respect strong-minded women when he had started out disliking them. And Flower-in-the-Night! She starts out as this innocent, incredibly naive person and then comes out of her shell, showing us (and Abdullah) that she is a force to be reckoned with, and I am perfectly sure that if Abdullah never arrived she would have rescued herself and all the other stolen princesses soon enough.

(4) Instalove – that turns out to be something else entirely. Abdullah and Flower-in-the-Night fall in love far too quickly for me – after a few meetings, they were already thinking of getting married. BUT. At this point in time, these two knew next to nothing about each other, and I really like that as the story goes on, Abdullah begins to respect Flower-in-the-Night for her intellect and strong mind, and only this reaffirms to him that he is now in love, rather than merely infatuated with her beauty. As the story focuses on him rather than Flower-in-the-Night, we don’t get to see her POV, but even she realises that her eagerness to marry him in the beginning may have just stemmed from her not having enough experience of the world.

(5) The other characters. I love the carpet and the genie and the soldier and the other princesses and to avoid spoilers I’ll just say that the person that Howl becomes in this book is just so very funny, that I still love Calcifer, and that Lettie is just as awesome as Sophie. I said in my last HMC post that I wished for a story about Lettie. This isn’t quite it, because Lettie only plays a small part in this story, but I love that Lettie has a part at all! I wish we could have more Lettie Hatter.

(5a) This is just a random thing: I always thought that Howl’s castle flew rather than walked, like depicted in the Ghibli film. The HMC novel never did specify how the castle moved, so either could be correct. But Howl’s castle in this book definitely floated among the clouds – I had a whole aha! moment about it, but then realised that of course, the way that the castle moved could also be one of the changes made to it after [spoilery stuff].

Now, this may be close to perfection, but it isn’t perfect. DWJ’s books sometimes would have this… I wouldn’t say fatphobic, necessarily, but she certainly seem to have issues with fatness. There are two sisters in this book that are described as fat/plump and they are just annoying, all giggly and vapid, and even though they do get a sort of happy ending with someone who loves and appreciates their fatness, it bothered me. I read somewhere that this comes from her own feelings of insecurity about her appearance, and I suppose I may not think all that much of it by itself, but when I’m rereading a lot of DWJ in one go it suddenly becomes this one glaring, uncomfortable thing. I suppose I will just have to acknowledge and accept this, and remember that DWJ also gave me characters like Sophie Hatter and Lettie Hatter and Flower-in-the-Night – and all of the princesses in this story, who are all amazing in their own right.

The next book I’ll be rereading is Black Maria, which I’ve mostly forgot other than the fact that has a LOT of women in it, so I’ll be looking forward to see how my reading of it will change.

Other thoughts:
Bunbury in the StacksCalmgrove | Here There Be Books

DWJ RE-READ no. 40 | Castle in the Air (1990)
previous story: “nad and Dan adn Quaffy”
next story: Black Maria

DWJ ReRead · Fantasy

“nad and Dan adn Quaffy” by Diana Wynne Jones

minorarcana“Nad and Dan adn Quaffy” is another of the stories by DWJ that I would place in the “weird” category. I liked it a lot, though, because it made me laugh, and I liked that this is basically a story about typos. In this story, an SF novelist and single mother named Candy (or F.C. Stone to her readers) made a name for herself writing stories based in a universe she created, most of them containing alien/human romance. She’s really bad at technology – here I was thinking of DWJ herself, who was supposedly also bad at technology – and could only get the most basic workings of her word processor. Her son, Danny, had to help her out most of the time. She also started to write typos all the time – she had had to type out the word “and” at least eight times before getting it right.

This doesn’t bother her, because when working she liked to pretend that her word processor was a ship command circuit. And her typos became an inspiration when she had to make up words to add to her universe’s vocabulary. (Quaffy, for example, was the staple drink of her character, inspired by her own dependence of coffee.) As Candy was sitting down to start on her new book, however, she started hearing voices. It was one of her characters, Adny, asking for her help to overthrow the government she had created.

Originally printed in a 1990 anthology called Digital Dreams, it was later reprinted in four different collections – Everard’s Ride, Minor Arcana, Believing is Seeing and Unexpected Magic. In the introduction for Minor Arcana, where I read it, DWJ wrote:

“It was even more fun to write ‘nad and Dan adn Quaffy’. This one is a loving send-up of a well-known author whose writing I admire and read so avidly that I’m sure I know where a lot of it comes from. The idea of it came to me as I typed nad for and for the hundredth time, changed it, found it was now adn, reached for my coffee in frustration and idly realised – among other things – that this other writer did this too. Typos are a great inspiration. Depending on which side you hit the wrong key, coffee can be either xiddaw or voggrr, both of which are obviously alien substances that induce a state of altered consciousness. And yet again, when I was halfway through it, giggling as I wrote, I was asked for a story about computers.”

I didn’t read the introduction until after I’ve read the story, but the whole time I was reading “nad and Dan and Quaffy” I was thinking, she must’ve had a lot of fun writing this! The alien universe introduced is different from what I’m used to (by DWJ) and makes me think of 80s/90s pulp SF – that’s where the “weird” comes from, I guess. The universe, rather than the story itself. Although I do want to know more about the universe and the characters, and the consequence of everything that happens in the story! Now a part of me is thinking, that’s what fanfiction is for, and am planning to reread the story slowly and glean as much as I can about this fictional universe.

The next story I’m rereading will be a book (finally! After so many short stories!), which I guess was a big deal for Diana Wynne Jones’ fans because it would be her first full-length novel for older children since The Lives of Christopher Chant in 1988. AND it was a companion to the delightful Howl’s Moving Castle (1986), too – Castle in the Air. I can’t wait!

DWJ RE-READ no. 39: “nad and Dan adn Quaffy” (1990)
previous story: “The Girl Who Loved the Sun”
next story: Castle in the Air