Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Diana Wynne Jones Retrospective

Today I've been invaded by a friend of mine from University, where we both studied physics and astronomy - she's also a big reader and the one who introduced me to Harry Potter books back when we were both students! 

Hello everyone! My name's Emma and you can normally find me in the gutter talking about all things astronomy and space related. However, Mel's kindly lent me her blog as I have something a lot more book-related that I want to write about today.

Diane Wynne Jones - much missed author
On 26th March Diana Wynne Jones died. She was, in my opinion, one of the best writers of children's fantasy fiction ever. Heck that's not good enough - one of the best writers of *fiction* ever. She was also prolific, publishing around 40 books in her lifetime. I started reading her in the late 80s or early 90s, but many of her books weren't widely available until the Harry Potter series took off, and publishers were looking for (what they considered to be) similar authors to cash in with. Her writing is just as imaginative, and much more varied, than J. K. Rowling's though. She manages to include wizards, witches, mythology, ghosts, futuristic landscapes and time travel amongst other things.

Animated Howl
So if that sounds interesting to you, where should you start? Well, her two most popular creations are the wizards Chrestomanci and Howl. Chrestomanci is essentially a civil servant, but one with an extravagant dressing gown for every day of the year (and more besides). The best place to begin with him is "Charmed Life", which tells the story of Cat Chant, a very ordinary boy, and his powerful witch sister Gwendolen who, she knows, is destined to do great things. Howl, on the other hand, well, to be honest I've always fancied Howl a little bit. He first turns up in "Howl's Moving Castle" but be careful, he's rumoured to eat the hearts of young girls! Luckily for the heroine, a very ordinary person called Sophie Hatter, this turns out to be not entirely the case. This book was also animated by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004 - the movie is good, and pretty faithful to the book, but I prefer book-Howl to movie-Howl.

My favourite book of hers though is also the one that seems to divide opinion - "Hexwood". The plot is fiendishly complicated, and you don't really know what's been going on until you get to the end which makes it kind of hard to talk about! Whenever I reread it though I'm struck by how it manages to seamlessly blend the best aspects of sci-fi and fantasy, whilst also being clever, funny and emotional. It's partly a story about a Ann, a young girl who's recovering from a fever by exploring what, she quickly realises, is a somewhat magical wood at the bottom of her road. However, it's also the story of the five Riegners who rule over the galaxy and, to put it mildly, aren't nice people at all. They've noticed something odd going on on Earth and it's making them nervous. I can't tell you anymore without spoiling it; please just go and read it.

There's one last book I feel I should mention before I give Mel her blog back - "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland". This is an essential traveling companion for anyone who needs to journey through the realms of bad fantasy fiction, as it manages to identify (and mock) all the cliches such work tends to fall into. Here's one of the entries:

Your guide to fantasy land

"JOURNEY is of course your Tour. No discovery or action can take place in Fantasyland without a good deal of travelling about. This is in the Rules. The Tour will be set up so that you will find at the outset you need to go to a CITY on the other side of the continent. Once there, you will find you need to go to the extreme south. And so on. You can count on the worst conditions for doing so. (See HARDSHIP, which the Management seems to find synonymous.) (See also LANDSCAPE, ROADS, and TERRAIN, of which you will see lots.) (Oh, and HORSES, which you will have to ride, BOOTS, which you will need when all your Horses are dead, and DARK LORD, who will be trying to stop you every mile of your Journey.) "

I hope I've managed to persuade you that Diana Wynne Jones is a writer worth checking out, if you haven't already. If you're interested in her life you should check out her obituary in The Guardian - she was taught at University by both Tolkein and C. S. Lewis! I've only been able to mention a fraction of her books here - if you've got a particular favourite of your own tell us about it in the comments. Happy reading!

Thanks Emma for that wonderful retrospective! My personal favourite Diane Wynne Jones books were Fire and Hemlock where a young girl realises that she has forgotten her best friend but doesn't know why and A Tale Of Time City - a unique twist on time travel. I also urge you all to check out Emma'a astronomy blog - it's great to see the fun side of science!


  1. What a great tribute. Loved the anime they made of her books. I think I'll have to check out more of her books.

  2. You know I've never read any of her books, but I do want to read them as they sound amazing. Wonderful tribute to a great author. :) Thank you!