coraa: (bookworm)
Ever since Diana Wynne Jones passed away, I've been doling out the new-to-me books a few at a time to make them last. This is one of my most recent "new" reads.

It's clear from the beginning that magical things are going on at Melstone House, because Andrew is first informed that his grandfather has died and left him the place by his deceased grandfather's ghost. But Andrew can't figure out exactly what's going on: why everyone keeps referring to his "field-of-care," what document he's supposed to be finding among his grandfather's voluminous papers, or why Aidan Cain has run away and sought him for help. But he'd better figure it out quickly, because something sinister is rapidly encroaching on the property...

This is what I think of as a very typical Diana Wynne Jones book: set in a world almost but not quite ours, with a large cast of highly eccentric characters, a scale that is small but with potentially far-reaching results, and a protagonist (or protagonists) who is always just one step behind the rapidly-unfolding (and rapidly-complicating) plot. That said, "typical Diana Wynne Jones" is in no way a criticism. This book contains many of the things that I like about her as an author, particularly the large, eccentric, mostly-likeable cast of characters and the way all the tangled plot threads tie up at the end in a big, messy climactic ending. DWJ does the "gloriously chaotic ending" better than pretty much anyone I can think of.

Some of the things that I liked about the book are hard to talk about outside the spoiler cut, like the way it plays with a certain set of tropes. Let me just say that it manages to deal with some common tropes in way that are a little uncommon without hanging a big "I am subverting this trope! Look at me subvert!" sign on it.

The book did some other things that I think of as classic Diana Wynne Jones, and again, in a good way. It is very funny, in some places funny enough to make me giggle out loud. The humor is character-based, which is my favorite kind. And that ties in with another thing I appreciated: serious emotional subjects are handled with a sensitivity and a deft touch that makes them feel honest without being sledgehammer-like. There is one scene where a character grieves, and it felt completely real to me, but it wasn't like wading through a quagmire of angst.

I wouldn't say this was one of my very favorite DWJ books. It's very light, and again, it's doing something she has done many times. But good DWJ is great by most other standards, and this is definitely good. I'd recommend it, especially as a book to read if you're having a bad day.

Spoilers have a magic stained glass window. )

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones
coraa: (bookworm)
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

After Diana Wynne Jones passed away earlier this year, I started rereading some of my favorites of her books. (Not in any kind or orderly or organized fashion; for that, see [livejournal.com profile] swan_tower's DWJ project.) It's hard for me to actually decide what my favorite DWJ book is. Archer's Goon is a possibility, Charmed Life is a possibility; Witch Week is a possibility. But Howl's Moving Castle is a strong contender for favorite. It's also one of the earliest DWJ I read: after Archer's Goon but before Charmed Life.

The book is set in a mildly fairy-tale-esque world—fairy-tale-esque enough that its protagonist, Sophie, knows that (being the oldest of three children instead of the youngest) she is not meant for great things, and is only going to get into trouble if she sets off to seek her fortune. So she settles into the boring but sensible work of trimming hats at the hat shop her father owned before he died. But the Witch of the Waste arrives on Sophie's doorstep with a curse, and sets her off to seek her fortune (and cross paths with the wicked magician Howl) whether she planned it or not.

I think the thing I love most about this book, have always loved most about it, is how grounded and sensible it is. For instance, Howl has a pair of seven-league boots that Sophie and Michael (Howl's apprentice) use to visit one of Sophie's sisters. Seven leagues is twenty-ish miles... and of course it's hard to steer or navigate if you go ten miles at a step. And the way Sophie justifies sticking around Howl's castle is by acting as a housekeeper... complete with details of exactly how much work it is to clean up after a layabout wizard and his teenage apprentice if they haven't cleaned in years. (It made me want to go do some spring cleaning of my own, in fact.)

The characters are really what make this book. Well, and the setting (I love the odd combination of fairy-tale and realistic of the world, and of course the castle is marvelous). There's a plot involving the Witch of the Waste and a missing prince, but it's really an excuse for Sophie to be clever and sensible and no-nonsense, and for Howl to be brilliant and lazy, and for Calcifer the fire demon to be... thoroughly Calcifer, and so on. Even the more minor characters, like Sophie's sisters and the dog, are so beautifully-drawn even in just a few lines that I feel like I know them, and would happily have tea with them.

This is part of the genre I think of as "cozy fantasy," and it's one of my ultimate comfort reads. It's funny and warm, tremendously readable, and I highly recommend it.

(The Miyazaki movie tends to split the opinions of fans of the book. While it has the same story, in fairly broad strokes at least, it turns the sensibility of the book upside-down: where the book is pragmatic and grounded even in its more magical details, the movie is dreamlike even in its more mundane details. I think that's why it feels so different—at least to me—even though the characters and plot are largely similar. I like both, but they are very much not the same.)

I have not yet read the sequels, partly because I'm afraid that very few things could live up to this book. Those of you who have read Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways: what do you think of them?

And now for some spoilery commentary:

Spoilers express their feelings with green slime )
coraa: (matilda reads)
Archer's Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones

The Goon who showed up at Howard's family's kitchen table, huge legs stretched out to take up the whole room, said he was from Archer, and that Archer wanted his "two thousand." But according to Howard's father, the two thousand Archer wanted was not money but words. And it wasn't just Archer who wanted it: all seven of the family of wizards (or whatever they were) who farmed the town wanted those words, for purposes of their own. And they were prepared to make things quite uncomfortable if they didn't get them....

This was the first Diana Wynne Jones book I ever read, and while I've always been bad at picking favorites, this might be it. (That's your warning that this review is mostly an encomium.) It's part of what I call DWJ's odd standalones—odd not meant as an insult but as a genre designator—a class which includes A Tale of Time City, Fire and Hemlock, The Homeward Bounders and Eight Days of Luke. I say "odd" because they're not quite like anything I've found by anyone else: they are all set in our world, with secret or hidden magic, and the secret or hidden magic manages to be simultaneously very mysterious and very mundane in a way that's difficult for me to explain but that delights me to no end. And then there's DWJ's distinctive dry sense of humor, which permeates this book particularly.

Anyway. Archer's Goon. One of the things that I love most about this book is the way that the plot is a truly satisfying, sense-making, interesting plot that springs fully from character. In fact, it springs so fully from character that, on my first read-through, I was fairly certain that the plot was just an excuse for the characters to be fascinating (and fascinating they are, and often likable too)... and then at the end everything slotted neatly and inevitably into place precisely because of the way the characters had spent the prior two hundred pages being fascinating. It's beautifully done, and it's something I appreciate because I read books for character first, and so a character-driven plot that works so well is immensely satisfying.

And oh, the characters! There's Howard, the main character, who is smart and wry and sensible and daydreamy all at once. There's his little sister Awful, who I love to pieces: she's one of the least-romanticized child characters I've ever seen (she lives up to her name, let's just say), and who is nonetheless quite charming in her own Awful way. There's the Goon, who I came to like a great deal almost against my will, on the first read-through, and who now on re-reads I like from the beginning (which works, too). There's Howard and Awful's parents, who are delightful and infuriating by turns, and who neither solve the problems themselves nor are particularly useless. (Well, Howard's father is kind of useless, but for reasons that are in character and not just 'it's a kid's book, he has to be useless.') And then there are Torquil and Hathaway and Ginger Hind and Archer and Dillian and Shine and on and on. The book has a ton of characters, and they're all distinct and interesting, and some of them I love and some of them I want to punch in the nose and it all works.

There are other things that I love and want to talk about, but they're, hmm, varying degrees of spoilery. Here, I'll give you two cuts: one for things that are mildly to moderately spoilery but that, IMHO, won't ruin your book-enjoyment, and another for things that I suspect you would not want to know before your first read-through. (If you click the first cut, have no fear; I will make it boldingly clear at what point the spoilers switch over.)

Moderate spoilers )

Big bad spoilers )

Anyway, this is a beautifully-plotted book with a lot of great characters, and I'm sad that it's out of print. Recommended.

EDIT: Spoilers welcome in the comments, so be aware of that if you are unspoiled!

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