Diana Wynne Jones has become one of my favorite authors, but I avoided her for years. The problem is that her books are not very blurb-friendly. I don’t know how many times I picked up one of her books, read the back and thought “Meh, maybe next time.” Then came the wonderful day I decided to give her a try. I started with Howl’s Moving Castle; I figured if it had been made into a movie it couldn’t be that bad. It was so much better than I had hoped. The blurb:
Sophie lived in the town of Market Chipping, which was in Ingary, a land in which anything could happen, and often did – especially when the Witch of the Waste got her dander up. Which was often.
As her younger sisters set out to seek their fortunes, Sophie stayed in her father’s hat shop. Which proved most unadventurous, until the Witch of the Waste came in to buy a bonnet, but was not pleased. Which is why she turned Sophie into an old lady. Which was spiteful witchery.
Now Sophie must seek her own fortune. Which means striking a bargain with the lecherous Wizard Howl. Which means entering his ever-moving castle, taming a blue fire-demon, and meeting the Witch of the Waste head-on. Which was more than Sophie bargained for…
is accurate, but come on. This sounds like the cheesiest, most boring book ever. In reality it is weird, funny, snarky, a little confusing at times, and utterly charming. I was completely hooked. Some of her books are out of print, but I’ve seen all of them on Amazon at one time or another. These are some of my favorites, all of which are still in print and pretty easy to find.
The Castle Series
Since we’ve already talked about Howl’s Moving Castle, I figured I’d start with the Castle books. Jones very rarely writes straight up sequels, follow-ups are more like tangents. The main characters from Howl are in the next book, Castle in the Air, but they don’t really show up till the very end. Castle in the Air is an Arabian Nights type story about a rug merchant named Abdullah. The woman he loves gets kidnapped by a Djinn and Abdullah has to go on a fantasy quest to rescue her. The story culminates with a castle full of princesses and a daring rescue that involves a stinky squid-loving dog. The third book in the Castle Series is House of Many Ways. I don’t even know how to describe this one. Basically, a young woman named Charmain learns how to take care of herself outside of her parents’ house and learns how to be a magician at the same time. The squid-loving dog helps save the day again, it’s pretty cool.
The Magids Series
“Series” is a bit of a stretch since it’s only two books, but they are two very good books. Deep Secret is the first book. If you have ever been to a convention with any kind of fantasy element, you must read this book. It really captures the insanity of a con. There are real live magicians, both good and evil, parallel worlds, centaurs and a cranky bush goddess, but the strangest people are the human conventioneers. As it should be. In The Merlin Conspiracy, the second book, we follow Nick, who is the younger brother from Deep Secret. Again there are parallel worlds, Jones really likes parallel worlds, but in this one Nick is trying to stop evil magic users in an analogue England from warping all the magic in all the worlds for their own evil purposes.
Again, this is a two book series. Maybe they call them a series because she plans to write more with the same characters. A girl can dream. If Deep Secret is a must-read for anyone who has ever been to a con, Dark Lord of Derkholm is a must for anyone who has ever tried to plan a large event. In Derkholm an entire world has been turned into a fantasy getaway planet for a dastardly multi-millionaire from another dimension. He sells “tours” where people like us can go to this other world (did I mention that Jones really likes parallel worlds?) and live the “authentic” fantasy adventure with bearded wizards, seductive enchantresses, and a Dark Lord that they must ultimately defeat. This year, the Dark Lord is a wizard named Derk who is more of a farmer/genetic engineer (he has flying pigs that he rents out for parties after the tours are over). He and his children, most of whom are griffins, end up saving their world from the evil Mr. Chesney, with the help of a dragon and an IRS agent from the other world.
Book two, Year of the Griffin, is a going off to college story. One of Derk’s griffin daughters, Elda, is starting Wizard University and she makes friends with a poor prince, a runaway dwarf, another runaway prince, a pirate and a sort-of princess who’s government wants to kill her. There’s assassins, more pirates, a moon shot that misses and school romances.
I really sympathize with the blurb writers, Jones’ books defy simple explanation. Her most popular series, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, is wonderful and it’s a real-live series that’s up to six books now, but I don’t even want to try to describe them. I’ve tried three times now, but it just comes out sounding like gibberish. Just trust me. If you are looking for something light and fun and different, Diana Wynne Jones is the way to go. The blurbs don’t do them justice – have faith and dive in.