Friday, December 21, 2012

For the Love of Diana Wynne Jones

      If you are a steady reader or writer of the fantasy genre, you have probably already come across at least one or two of Diana Wynne Jones' works (after all, there's over 40 of them). And if you have not yet read one of her novels, you should. Her writing is always great, her stories absurd, wonderful, satirical, and thoughtful. In all my fantasy reading and re-reading, I still believe her to be one of the most imaginative and unique writers of our time.
    Somehow, however her books always seem to stay out of the limelight. Maybe she's incredibly more popular in England, where she lived and wrote most of her novels. Maybe I happen to live in the part of San Francisco where nobody really talks about her. But in my experience (working in a bookstore, that is), children and young adult readers have never really heard of her, even if they are ardent readers and lovers of fantasy. I think the success of the Harry Potter series has oddly both helped and hindered her fame as a writer. On the one hand, Rowling's books created a burgeoning desire for fantasy books for young readers. At the height of Potter popularity some of Jones' books that were written as early as the 70's were brought back out and republished for a new crowd of readers. (I was certainly one of them: when I was roaming the bookshelves in true Potter withdrawal, I picked up Howl's Moving Castle. Right on the cover was the quote "Mad about Harry? Try Diana." A comparison. A challenge. Two things that Diana stood up to brilliantly.) 
   But on the other hand, the Potter series is a global and cultural phenomenon and has thus outshone her as one. The Potter series paved the way for new obsessions over new writers and new series, and somehow Diana Wynne Jones become more popular and more appreciated, but her fame never quite became that of upcoming writers of series like The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, or Twilight. 
    So, in the case that any of you have never read her books, or in the case that some of you have read them long ago, liked them, and haven't re-read them since. Here are some of my favorite books from her. These are ones I've read when I was young, and all hold up for re-reads. Enjoy! 
(Book descriptions are from the back of the books.)

Read the first chapter
SOPHIE HAS THE great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye

This is a romantic and magical book, and probably her most famous, as it was made into an anime several years ago. This is a good introduction to her writing style. 

IN THIS MULTIPLE parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds, only an enchanter with nine lives is powerful enough to control the rampant misuse of magic--and to hold the title Chrestomanci...
The Chants are a family strong in magic, but neither Christopher Chant nor Cat Chant can work even the simplest of spells. Who could have dreamed that both Christopher and Cat were born with nine lives--or that they could lose them so quickly?

The Chrestomanci series is some of her best stuff. This edition, a volume comprising of the first and second novel, is probably my favorite book to re-read. Christopher travels in between dream worlds. What gets better than that?

FOR FORTY YEARS, Wizard Derk's world has been devasted by Mr. Chesney's Pilgrim Parties- packaged excursions for tourists from the next universe in search of adventure. When mild-mannered Derk is chosen to play the role of this year's Dark Lord, he is forced by the sinister Mr. Chesney to turn his bucolic country estate into a labyrinthine castle lit by baleful fires, manifest himself as a nine-foot tall shadow with flaming red eyes, and lead his minions in a climatic battle against the Forces of Good. Can Derk find a way to put an end to the evil Mr. Chesney and his Pilgrim parties- once and for all?

I'm in the middle of re-reading this right now. As is the case with her other novels, this is a page turner that does not rely upon just action to drive the story. Its a satirical look at the traditional fantasy genre (it's not nearly as ironic as her Tough Guide to Fantasyland), and still holds up its own as a magical and lively fantasy novel. 

Lastly, this is a collection of her own critical essays and thoughts of what it means to be a writer. As a writer of fantasy for over 40 years, and a (literal) student of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, she has a lot of wonderful things to say: 

"Various threads run through this collection, but by far the strongest is that of the need for fantasy in all its many facets and its value for children and adults alike." 

Diana Wynne Jones' worlds are deep and unique. Her characters are rich. Her magic lurks in the background, half-expected and always extraordinary. 


  1. Now this is very interesting because I have read both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (American version) and Howl's Moving Castle. I never went on to read the rest of the Harry Potter books, which are still shelved in my little sister's bedroom library, but have been chomping at the bit for ages to read more DWJ.

    I did like Harry Potter, but if I had to chose to never read it again in order to read more books by DWJ, I wouldn't even have to think twice.

    Would you have any idea why someone like me would so much prefer one to the other? I don't know, myself.

  2. Even for a total Harry Potter nerd, this is quite refreshing to hear! DWJ has such a unique way of looking at the world and her magic was always much more rooted in the world and characters for me.
    I feel like there's still a ton of her works I have yet to read. Any absolute favorites?

    1. I've only ever read Howl's Moving Castle so far. I LOVED it. So much that I was even _slightly_ disappointed with Miyazaki's interpretation in the film. And that's saying something because I love all his work!

      I need to read more of her and Harry Potter. I think I would have a better appreciation for HP if I "went all the way," so to speak.

      Maybe it has something to do with the rootedness of the magic, like you and Ms. Loveday said, something more subtle, that needs working at. While HP magic is a bit more . . . obvious? That could be it because I am partial to magical realism and the like.

  3. I was given DWJ to read before Harry Potter but never got into it...mind you, I was only 6...

    It's funny though, my memory of the books (which I know I did read but have no firm memory of) is more of a feeling it carried, of something deep and magical that needed to be worked at more to get into at that age. Whereas one year later I picked up HP and was easily hooked.

    In later years I picked up standalone novels of hers and thoroughly enjoyed them but never tried the series again. But weirdly...I still couldn't tell you what the stories were about, just that prevailing feeling. One of them was called Archer's Goon, and I remember finding it very funny and having a fantastic twist at the end. I definitely want to try her again, that has been on my to-do list for far too long now!

    1. I had a similar experience with The Hobbit. Tried reading it at nine or so, and it was too early. However, the mysterious aura of it made a noteworthy impression on me, and I came back to read it when I was fourteen and was sold for life!

    2. Yup. She was always one of my favorite authors even when I could only vaguely recall what some of her books were actually about. In that book I mentioned 'Reflections', Neil Gaiman wrote in the forward that her books are difficult. Not in the ordinary sense, but just that her readers had to pay attention to everything she wrote, that she didn't write a word on the page that didn't need to be there. I keep thinking about that as I'm re-reading some of these books. She's a very interesting author.


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