I’ve been enjoying reading everyone’s Diana Wynne Jones posts so much, and although I feel like I’m not saying anything new and preaching to the choir, I’m going to talk about my extreme love for her books.
Growing up, my family didn’t really do fantasy. I read Narnia at some point when I was about 10 or 11, but that was about it. It wasn’t until I got to middle school that I began discovering that realm and instantly fell in love with it. Robin McKinley, Lord of the Rings, and, at some point, Archer’s Goon. I can still vividly remember my reaction to it, which was almost complete bafflement. It was just so weird, this strange family and Shakespeare and it seemed so odd.
But I also loved the narrator. I loved the twist and the way it made me think about people differently, about myself differently. So, when I noticed one of the Chrestomanci books sitting on the shelf, I remembered sort-of liking Archer’s Goon and picking it up.
I loved it instantly (pretty sure it was Charmed Life because even now I almost always re-read Chrestomanci in that order) and read all the other books, several of which the librarian bought while I was reading through the series. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure she kept track of the series I was reading and ordered the ones we didn’t have, because this also happened with Susan Cooper. Also, I practically lived there and she liked me.
In high school I essentially stopped reading fantasy (long story), but I did remember Chrestomanci and co fondly and when I reached college and started dipping back into that world, one of the first things I did was start obsessively reading every Diana Wynne Jones book I could get my hands on.
And, I mean, I haven’t read them all, but those I haven’t read have been mostly because they’re obscure and hard to find.
I think the thing that’s kept me reading, that keeps me re-reading over and over are the characters. They’re amazing–so contrary and annoying, so believable. They’re full of life and a kind of real and tangible inspiration. I mean, I’ve literally thought to myself, “What would Sophie do in this situation?” Mitt’s lost land lies in the back of my mind as one of the most beautifully written passages I’ve ever read. And the end of Homeward Bounders is making me choke up right now, though I haven’t read it in over two years.
The worlds of her imagination are so rich and vivid that it’s hard for me not to believe that they do exist, somewhere. In most of her books, the description of the magical parts, the parts that make her worlds not ours, are both so clear and so unclinical that I often compare other descriptions to hers.
I said the other day that The Perilous Gard is a heart-book for me, one of those that have gone so deep I don’t really need to re-read them anymore (though, obviously, I do). A disproportionate number of Diana Wynne Jones books are heart-books–Howl, for Sophie, and Dalemark. Deep Secret, and Fire and Hemlock. (Not coincidentally, those are the bulk of the ones I actually own.) Even moving beyond those, trying to pick favorites is like trying to pick a favorite chocolate. This one, and this one, and this one. But here are a few:
Howl’s Moving Castle of course, because Howl + Sophie= true love forever! Plus, Wales. Also, Calcifer.
Deep Secret which is less known, but one of my favorites. Rupert and Maree and Nick fighting against the forces of evil in the middle of a sci-fi convention, lovingly sent-up. What’s not to love? The sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy, is also good.
The Dalemark Quartet, her high fantasy series which in some ways isn’t really high fantasy at all. It’s lovely and some of her deepest writing, I think. I talked more about them here and here.
Fire and Hemlock, because Polly is such a lovely character and the writing is perfect, that kind of dream-like combination of vague and hyper-clear. Also, it is a Tam Lin retelling and those are awesome.
Hexwood, another lesser known one, but I love what she does with the Arthurian legends and how she manages to weave in so many disparate threads in an original but not slapdash way.
It strikes me as I type this that I love her books for her characters, and for the way they enrich me and help me to see the world in a different light. But in more technical terms, Diana Wynne Jones was the absolute mistress of the slow reveal, the masked characters who are more than they seem, or the opposite of what they seem. It’s such a trope, and yet in her hands I never felt cheated or annoyed. I wonder if it’s possible that she saw the world that way–always wondering what really lies behind the people we encounter in our everyday lives? And I love the exuberance and life that runs through them all, even those that seem dreary at first.
I always meant to write her a fan letter, not because I thought she needed to know another person loved her books, but because it would have been nice. I should have, and I wish I had. But this will have to take its place.
In the end, I think that the world is a better and richer place for her having been here. And that would be a nice thing to say for anyone.