Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: House of Many Ways - or why I adore Diana Wynne Jones but not this book...

Among my birthday presents were a whole horde of children's books - beautiful editions of favourites from my childhood and new children's fantasy novels that I've been wanting to read (all in the name of research, I tell people - so not true.) Here's my take on one of those.

House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones

What you have to understand first of all, is that I idolise Diana Wynne Jones. There are more prestigious authors I admire, there are, even in her field of children's fantasy, writers better known (J.K. Rowling) and more respected (Philip Pullman.) But if I could be any writer and take on their whole writing legacy (good and bad, she's been writing for more than 30 years), it would be her.

When I first discovered A Tale of Time City at the age of 11, I read it straight through (in those days I always read books in one sitting) and then turned back to the beginning and read it aloud to my brother and sister. Somewhere in my family's crawlspace there may be, embarrassingly, a stack of cassette tapes that I recorded of the first book and a half of the Dalemark Quartet (Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet). Every time I made a mistake, I carefully rewound and started over.

I like her because she writes characters who feel like my close personal friends - or people that as a child, I wanted to be my close personal friends. I like that, like me, she is primarily a standalone writer in a genre full of hefty ten-book chronological sequences. Her most famous 'series', the Chrestomanci novels, can be read in almost any order and on their own, most of them tenuously linked only by the enigmatic enchanter Chrestomanci and the same set of fantasy worlds. And the writing! The exquisite understated visuals of The Lives of Christopher Chant are pretty unbeatable.

She is an expert plotter, one of the best, and I am still surprised by her endings even after reading her books many times. As an aspiring child writer, I wrote to Diana Wynne Jones once, asking whether she plotted her books out ahead of time, or worked them out as she went along (I expected the former a la J.K. Rowling, one owes much to DWJ, but hoped for the latter as reassurance for my own haphazard methods.) I received this response:

"No, I certainly do not plan every book out in advance. This leaves no loose space for unexpected things to happen in, and I love to be surprised by things suddenly happening at me when I'm writing. What I do, is to know the beginning and (usually) the end, and something pretty vivid and intriguing in the middle, and then let the book do what IT wants to do. Things can get pretty wild two-thirds of the way through. But just after that, I see the pattern the plot makes. Have you noticed, as a writer, that most stories, if they are right, make a pattern you can almost draw as a diagram? (For instance, the one I have just finished the first draft of makes a design like the caduceus - Mercury's wand with snakes wrapped round it - starting off in loose loops that get tighter and tighter). When I see this pattern, it is quite easy to pull the plot into line. But I think that, because the plot has usually surprised ME, it tends to surprise other people too."

Yes, Diana, I like that. Still, it's hard to believe when looking at something like Witch Week which comes so perfectly full circle, or Fire and Hemlock, not my favourite but a beautiful rendition of Tam Lin and the tricky device of one person living too parallel lives. Howl's Moving Castle is a fractured fairy tale romp that somehow maintains a seriously compelling core, and The Ogre Downstairs, one of her earliest, is one of the most natural and sympathetic step-family stories I've read.

Lately, Diana Wynne Jones has been writing sequels, culminating with her most recent, House of Many Ways, the second sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, one of my favourites. The thing is, if it was anyone else, I would probably enjoy these books. But, for me, her past work (and really I mean almost all of it) has set the bar too high.

House of Many Ways has a good plot, some great devices (Howl disguised as a sickeningly sweet golden-haired child comes to mind) and some truly funny moments. DWJ has always had a wry English sense of humour and it's used to good effect in this novel. Unfortunately, what usually makes the humour so compelling, so necessary, are the deeply serious undertones that always come along with it, and those undertones are entirely missing from House of Many Ways. Even worse, the humour often feels forced, and the story is a little silly. Worst of all, the main character, Charmain (really, Diana? Charmain?) is self-absorbed and unappealing, the minor characters are caricatures, and the villains are hardly there. It is really only the returning characters (Howl, Sophie and Calcifer - who don't take over the story which is a good thing) and the quality of the writing (which, as always, is seamless) that make this a worthwhile read.

Her last few books have fallen flat for me in much the same way. Some of them are very nicely plotted, but the depth of message and of character seems to have waned a bit, replaced with some nice writing, a dose of humour, and some sharp clever devices. With her, though, I expect something more.

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