Jonesing for a Good Read: What Makes Diana Wynne Jones Magical
Diana Wynne Jones is one of the authors I foist on everyone who asks for a fantasy reading recommendation. Because I didn’t discover her work until I was well into my twenties (thanks to the Miyazaki film version of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE), I try to make up for lost time and spread the word of an author whose works deserve to be widely read.
My relationship with HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is a bit backwards. Usually, I seek out the book before watching the movie, but I didn’t in this case. Howl, a tortured wizard with a penchant for snazzy dressing and a weakness for hair dye, was the perfect animated hero. Sophie was also a nuanced heroine with a tinge of sadness so common in Miyazaki films, and Calcifer just cracked me up. I ended up loving the film and I knew I had to read the book.
So I bought a trade paperback copy and settled down to read. A week later, I emerged from my Howl-induced stupor, and I was hooked. Addicted, really. Not just to Howl, but to Jones’s work, and I knew I had to read everything that she had written. So I stocked up my Metrocard, threw on my coat, and returned to the bookstore.
To my dismay, they didn't carry many of her books, and the few that were in print needed to be ordered online (or imported from England). Still, I tracked them down one by one (I'm still not done with my quest, by the way, having yet to read THE OGRE DOWNSTAIRS or HEXWOOD, which I hear are wonderful). But the ones I did find, I hoarded like a hungry dragon. I'd have to stop myself from devouring those books in one sitting. Instead, I would linger over the pages as though seated at a literary feast, chewing on odd turns of phrase or drinking in a particularly apt description.
Still, I’m not that greedy, and I know a good book when I read one, which is why I almost always recommend Jones’s books to readers looking for some unusual fantasy. And the feedback is always spectacular. Even my best friend has gotten hooked on Jones. (We also fight over Howl, whom we both claim as our literary boyfriend, but that's neither here nor there.)
So what makes Jones and her books so great? Here are a few reasons I’ve come up with as I’ve mulled over her work.
- Jones doesn't talk down to her reader. She writes books for kids and young adults, but that doesn’t mean her stories are simple. She scatters clues throughout the narrative and expects you to piece them together. FIRE AND HEMLOCK is a good example of this; the reader has to figure out why Polly is living a double life and is the target of a sinister family. Another example is POWER OF THREE, where perspective plays a crucial part in interpreting the world. It’s this sense of mystery that moves Jones’s narrative along and keeps the reader turning pages. The stories would lose some of their magic if every twist and turn were spelled out.
- Twisty plots. Jones is the queen of madcap plots and subplots. For this reason, I consider her a master class in plotting. Her ability to scatter clues and build her story world convinces the reader that her brand of literary insanity is not only possible, but probable. ARCHER’S GOON is a strong example of Jones’s plotting. I started out thinking I was reading one book, but it ended up being a different book entirely. Her DALEMARK QUARTET is another, where seemingly disparate stories weave together to form a colorful literary tapestry.
- Horrible relations. Almost every Jones protagonist seems to have a horrible family. Usually this lack of family ties is what spurs the protagonists towards independence and fulfilling their magical destinies. Often, the horrible relations are the story’s villains, my favorite being Gwendolen Chant from CHARMED LIFE, who steals her brother’s magic (but still can’t seem to spell properly). Other villains include the parents in TIME OF THE GHOST, whose neglect sets the stage for their daughters’ mischief.
- More characters than you can shake a stick at. Jones’s characters are more like real people than types. They make mistakes, they behave badly, they grow, they regress, they perform daring acts of heroism, they engage in wanton acts of cowardice, and everything else in between. As far as Jones’s heroes (and heroines), she doesn’t stick with a particular type. Charmaine from HOUSE OF MANY WAYS is a fussy bookworm. Sophie from HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is a bossy old lady. And Cat Chant from CHARMED LIFE is a scared boy on the edge of becoming a powerful wizard. There is someone to like in every Jones book, just as there’s a Jones book for every reader, because…
- Jones never writes the same story twice. She’s written everything from romances, to high fantasy, to urban fantasy, and many other story types in between. Although her style is signature (from her warm humor to her odd descriptions), her plots are never exactly the same. If one Jones book didn’t quite catch your fancy, there’s probably another out there for you. In fact, if you ask a Jones fan which his or her favorite book is, you’ll probably receive wildly varying answers—an indication of a rich backlist.
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Sabrina is a marketing maven by day and fantasy writer by night. When she isn’t buried in a new story, she’s blogging about books and writing at Sabrina’s Library, or Tweeting about all things literary (and often silly) at @sabrinaslibrary.