March 14th, 2003


A song for John Harcourt

I stood in this sunsheltered place
'Til I could see the face behind the face
All that had gone before had left no trace
Down by the railway siding
In our secret world, we were colliding
All the places we were hiding love
What was it we were thinking of?

--Peter Gabriel, "Secret World"

As is usual with applying songs outside their original context, it's never quite the right fit. But I was just listening to it, and it resonates with me. Sweet and sorrowful, with, just maybe, a little sliver of hope.

What was it we were thinking of?
  • Current Mood
    melancholy melancholy
Me 2012

Diana Wynne Jones

I've read so many books by her recently that I figure it's about time I wrote something on her.

Back in 1987 or so, I read a fantasy novel aimed at the "young adult" (as Lut put it: "whatever that's supposed to be") market, called Howl's Moving Castle. I was working at a library, discovered it on the shelves, read it, loved it, returned it. In the years afterwards, I would occasionally fondly recall this book, and wonder if it was really as good as I remembered.

A few months ago, I took it into my head to get a copy from the local library and read it again. (The local library system in Emerald City provides amazing service. You can search the catalog for all thirteen branches via a single website, and request -- also via web -- that any book be sent to your local branch for pickup. It's like only without home delivery, and with a higher percentage of placed-orders that wind up unfulfilled. Still, given that this is all provided to me free of charge, it's pretty darn spiffy). Howl's was just as good as I remembered. I went hunting about for a sequel, and couldn't tell that she'd written any more (I was wrong; Castle in the Air is a sequel to it). But I thought: Why do I need a sequel? She's got lots of other books. I was quite fond of most of the characters in Howl's; I'd probably like the characters in her other books, too. Authors tend to recycle the same basic archetypes with new names and backgrounds, anyway.

So I embarked on a mission to read everything DWJ has ever written. This turns out to be a lot. I can't remember the last time I tried to read an author's entire oeuvre. (Er, scratch that. I just rememberd. I was an adolescent and it was Piers Anthony. I must have been surpressing the memories of it, like the time Lut and I watched Blue Seed. Look, I was young, OK? I didn't know any better. Really, my tastes have improved a lot in the intervening years. Please don't hurt me.

(Actually, I did the same thing with Jane Austen, but I could only find four books by her at the time. And I've read an awful lot of Shakespeare, really. And Terry Pratchett, come to think of it, who's probably written as many or more books than DWJ, in half the time. But, well, the point is I don't usually get on a one-author kick and just keep reading everything they've ever done.)

Anyway, Ms. Jones has written, I don't know, around 40 books. Most of them are written as standalones. Even the ones that are part of a series stand pretty well by themselves, with a few exceptions. For example, there are four books in the Dalemark Quartet. Recommended reading order goes: Cart and Cwidder, Drowned Ammet, The Spellcoats, and finally The Crown of Dalemark. But it turns out that you can read the first three in pretty much any order and it won't make a lot of difference. However, you really should read ALL of the first three before reading the last one. Yes, I know that seems weird. Just trust me.

I started by reading the various related works I could find: the four Dalemark books, four of the five Chrestomanci volumes (including one thin book of short stories, but not including The Magicians of Caprona, which is under some kind of stolen-from-every-library curse), and the sequel to Howl's. The rest don't seem to be any particular relation to each other, so I'm just going through now in alphabetical order. Or, rather, I'm requesting them in alphabetical order (in lots of three or four) and reading them in whatever order the library branch gets them in for me. :)

I love her style. She uses mostly light-hearted, vaguely (or genuinely, depending) British settings with fantasy elements. So far, Howl's Moving Castle is still my favorite, though Archer's Good was pretty neat. She doesn't emphasize mechanics much -- magic tends to work, or not work, without a whole lot of explanation of what goes into it. But the stories are well-woven, with little details that you can go back to and go Ohhhhh, so that what that was about! when you're done.

One of the things that I was thinking as I devoured Howl's for the second time was, "Why can't I write like this?" And I immediately followed that with "I'm sure I could, if I tried." Not that I'm necessarily that good (and I'm certainly not British :) but it's not as though I have to be depressing and angst-ridden in my writing. So recently I said, "Why not?" and just started writing something light-hearted and fanciful. It also turned out, accidentally, to sound pseudo-British. It's not that I meant to imitate her style that closely. It's just that I love British writing in general. I've read quite a few 19th-century romances, and it just leaked in. I dunno. Somehow it wouldn't be the same if I tried to Americanize it again.

Anyway. I don't care whether it sounds right to anyone else or not, since I'm writing it for me. Heehee! The neat thing about writing it for myself is that I can do things that I wish other authors would do. Not necessarily things that will make my work BETTER, in any abstract or analytical sense. Just more fun for me. :)