Escapism is good for your health: March Magics

Well, I’m quite sure we could all use some cheering up right now, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate March Magics – thanks to Kristen from We Be Reading who has hosted the event (originally DWJ March) for umpteen years. As we hole up avoiding dangerous germs, and tear our hair about other dire situations, we can at least escape to some magical worlds thanks to the wonderful works of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.

To me, this is a healthy form of escapism because both authors were keenly aware of the negative side of life, of the injustice, stupidity, hypocrisy and malice that cause such chaos and harm in our world. Their stories are an imaginative response to the question of how we can meet such challenges — with courage, with determination, and above all, with a sense of humor.

So far, I’ve read two books that reminded me how valuable this is. Terry Pratchett’s A Blink of the Screen is his collected shorter fiction, which doesn’t mean all short stories. He says short stories “cost him blood” and he’s only produced about 15 or so. I think they may all be in this volume, starting with the very first story he sold at the age of 13 (he’s embarrassed by its inclusion but it’s surprisingly good), and rounded out by miscellaneous “squibs” that include the Ankh-Morporkh national anthem, a fictional biography of an unknown nobleman in the National Portrait Gallery, and even text for a set of Discworld trading cards.

It’s a buoyantly eclectic collection that fitted my scattered attention span, and could be recommended for those who have yet to try Pratchett and don’t want to commit to a whole novel. The longest story, “The Sea and Little Fishes,” features one of my favorite Discworld characters, the archwitch Granny Weatherwax, and slyly explores the theme of real goodness/badness vs. the appearance thereof. It’s one of Pratchett’s recurring themes, but while in his novels he sometimes belabors the point, this is a snappily paced piece with enough development to be satisfying — so it’s really too bad he didn’t write more short stories in this vein.

I skipped a couple of the pieces (more SF/cyberpunk-oriented) that weren’t my style, but enjoyed some of the shorter pieces that take a “what if” sort of idea and run with it — like a based-on-a-true story speculation about how the chicken crossed the road, and a vignette imagining what it would be like to be trapped in a series of sentimental Christmas cards. I was impressed once more at how Pratchett can write books and stories that are light but not lightweight, intelligent without being dreary, and alive to the magic of language and storytelling. So whether you’re already a fan or not, I think it’s worth picking up and browsing. If you do, be sure to let me know which were your favorites.

Extremely ugly cover on my edition – Don’t let it put you off

I also reread The Homeward Bounders, which I believe is the first book in which Diana Wynne Jones plays with the idea of multiple universes that she so brilliantly explores in other writings. It’s a small book full of big ideas, starting with one that doesn’t seem so fantastic these days: what if the world is a game being played by powerful entities who keep themselves invisible? And how can we free ourselves from this manipulation, and take back reality for ourselves?

The storyteller is Jamie, a boy who chanced on the game-players (known only as Them) and was cursed to “walk the bounds,” moving from world to world without ever entering play. He’s given the hope that he may return home, though, and hope is an anchor … for what, exactly, only comes clear at the end.

Those final pages go by quickly, in the author’s typically headlong ending style, and belie their philosophical depth, leaving readers still with questions to ponder. We don’t get a conventionally reassuring conclusion, but I think it’s all the better for teen (and adult) readers to have to grapple with in our troubled times. It came as something of a shock for me on a first reading; now, seeing how it’s foreshadowed from the first page, I can only feel how inevitable and right it is.

As I read I also remembered my fondness for the characters: Joris the hero-worshipping demon hunter; Adam, the “posh boy” who gets in a bit over his head; and especially bad-tempered Helen, who hides behind her hair, loves creepy critters, and has a “deformity” that could save the world. Then there is Jamie himself, who on his wanderings through the worlds  becomes an stand-in for our own search for home, the elusive place where we belong.

Is it a hopeless quest? That depends on how you look at it. As always, I’m grateful to have my perspective widened, my imagination stretched, and my world expanded by such a venture into the fantastic. It’s the best medicine I can think of right now.

What have you read, or would like to read, for March Magics?

Witch Week: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

Please head over to Calmgrove for the annual celebration of Witch Week, cohosted by Lizzie Ross. I’m so glad these blogging friends have taken up this event, which I initiated in my first year of blogging. so the fun can continue!

The theme this year is “Villains,” and it makes me think of the line above (from the MGM movie of The Wizard of Oz). Spoken by Glinda to Dorothy after her house has crushed the Wicked Witch of the East, it confuses the girl — who was carried away by a cyclone and never meant to kill anybody.

But it points to an important fact of modern life: as we come unmoored from societal norms and constraints, as religion and conventional morality have less and less hold over humanity as a whole, we are challenged to look within and decide for ourselves whether we are on the side of good or evil, and what that means. We all carry our own “magic”; we all have the power to heal and bless, or wound and destroy, through our words, our impulses and desires, our very thoughts. We might want to deny that power, to say with Dorothy, “I’m not a witch at all!” — but we then run the risk of unacknowledged forces taking us over and using us without our knowledge.

Dorothy encounters parts of herself she didn’t know were there: her courage to pursue a goal, her compassion for the distress of others, her ability to break through illusions and reveal the truth. Though she never casts a spell, her quest becomes the focus that enables her friends to find their heart’s desire. That is the magic of the “good witch,” who is both fully herself and fully at the service of others.

Witches are also central to Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a comic mashup of various Shakespeare plays, whose exuberant silliness is underlaid by a formidable intelligence. (Just unraveling all the literary references could be a job for a graduate student.) Power is the theme again, with the malignant forces of Macbeth replaced by a more benign trio of Discworld witches — the crucial difference being that these “wyrd sisters” know that if they start to go down the road of controlling other human beings, they’re likely to end up…cackling.

It’s tempting to mess around with destiny when people are too foolish to see what’s best for them, though, and so when an evil Duke usurps the throne of Lancre by murdering the King, the witches become more involved than their own wisdom might advise. When missing heirs, ghosts, a troop of traveling players, and a storm to beat all storms converge, with DEATH himself waiting in the wings, there’s drama aplenty — and more laughs than your average Shakespearean bloodbath.

While Pratchett bedecks his witches with various occult trappings that poke fun at both ancient superstitions and modern New Age trends, they are also gloriously human, capable of being as vain, jealous, petty or misguided as any other mortal. But though not averse to inspiring some healthy respect in their countryfolk, they are not wicked. That persuasion is represented by the Duke and his horrible wife, who demonstrate the polarity of evil: emptiness of soul, and being over-full of oneself.

Between these extremes fall most of us regular people, who struggle to know ourselves and to forge healthy relationships with others, walking a tightrope between selfishness and loss of self. The hero of this story is, appropriately enough, the Fool — the overlooked, unknown, and misunderstood element, who must look into his own heart and take up what calls to be manifested there, the good that lies hidden amidst the confusion and deception of the world.

This is the moral aspect that makes Pratchett a serious writer, in spite of his skill at jokes and pratfalls. Without dictating, without prescribing, he wants to teach us something. And teaching through laughter, through the levity we gain by recognizing the wisdom hidden in foolishness, is maybe the best way of all.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones gives us a darker shade of comedy, verging on the macabre. Because of its more realistic setting, and its situation founded in the author’s own life, its horrors seem all too possible. There are funny parts, but also the underlying sadness that often goes with comedy (also touched on by Pratchett in his Fool’s tragic upbringing).

“There’s been an accident!” she thought. “Something’s wrong!” With these words, the story begins: an unnamed, disembodied person finds herself wandering the scenes of her former life, and has to try to figure out whether she is really a ghost, what happened to make her like this, and who she is, anyway. Slowly, along with her, we get to know the family of four sisters she’s sure she belongs to, daughters of the couple that runs School House in a big boys’ boarding school (this is the part that is uncannily similar to Jones’s own upbringing).

Among other things, this is a clever narrative device, that sidesteps the problem of exposition by making it a necessary part of the storytelling. Instead of clumsy sections where our hero thinks back on this or that incident in his life, or contemplates and inwardly describes a scene, we see things from the point of view of someone who, like the reader, is also looking for orientation and meaning amidst a jumble of impressions. The ghost’s sometimes erroneous conclusions add to the feeling of disorientation that is the fundamental mood of the novel.

We also get a detailed and thoughtful exploration of what it would be like to be a ghost: aware on levels that humans aren’t, yet frustratingly unable to get through to most of them or to affect the course of events without their help, and sometimes carried away helplessly by forces beyond her control.

Alternately amusing and terrifying, this point of view parallels that of a person who is trying to work through the disorientation caused by an abusive upbringing, especially abuse by a parent. And not very far beneath the comic antics of the four eccentric sisters is the confused rage of the child who has been neglected and hurt by the person who should have cared for her. The ghost’s very dislocation helps her to penetrate through some of her own illusions; as she sees herself from outside and witnesses her own blind, numb submission to a power of evil that the girls had unwittingly invoked, she gains the strength to wrest herself free and possess herself, at last.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch? Do you seek the knowledge that brings illumination and freedom, the self made whole? Or do you cling to the power that preserves the divided self, in a a state of domination and slavery?

In so many stories, so many situations of our lives, this question lies hidden. As you consider the theme of “villains,” you may find yourself contemplating it, as well.

March Magics: The True State of Affairs

It’s the magical month of March — time to celebrate two favorite fantasy authors, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, thanks to Kristen of We Be Reading who hosts March Magics each year. It’s a free-form event this time — read and post whatever and whenever you like, but be sure to visit Kristen’s blog to see what she’s up to, and connect with other fans.

This year, the selected theme is “Nothing but the shorts,” focusing on the dozens of short stories penned between the two authors. Because of my current book acquisition ban, I’m limited to the books I have on hand — and I have no stories by Terry Pratchett, and only a few by Diana Wynne Jones. So I decided to reread my copy of Everard’s Ride, a book I cherish not so much because it’s a rather valuable signed limited edition, as because it’s proof that an underrated master was finally getting some well-deserved recognition with this special production (done for the 1995 Boskone conference at which she was guest of honor).

But I also cherish it because it has one story that for some reason was never republished anywhere else, in the many confusingly overlapping compilations and anthologies of DWJ stories. And within this story is a poem I love, one of the few poems I’ve seen by her — though surely she must have written some for her own pleasure, if nothing else. At almost 100 pages, “The True State of Affairs” is more of a novella than a story, perhaps a discarded early draft for a novel. It feels unfinished, at any rate, frustratingly fragmentary — no explanation is given for the protagonist apparently being transported from modern England to a place bearing some resemblance to the universe of the Dalemark series — and tantalizingly lacking in closure.

I love it, though, because it’s a story about the risky business of expressing and defining and discovering ourselves through language. It’s written by a prisoner on scraps begged from her jailer, a prisoner who doesn’t understand the circumstances of her imprisonment, but who has to try to comprehend her predicament, remember who she is, and keep herself from going mad. In other words, it’s about life. What is the true state of affairs, for any of us?

Truth is the fire that fetches thunder
Kindled of itself, and only mine
In the heart that had its fashioning.

Looking out from her confinement, she sees another captive, and weaves stories about him that may or may not be true. From this she enters into a clandestine correspondence that leads her into further danger, emotional as well as physical. Who can say what really lives inside another person? What is truth — in our perceptions, in our ideas?

In this strange, ambiguous tale, with its uncharacteristically bleak ending, Diana Wynne Jones captures something of the mystery of self and other, without reaching any easy or comfortable conclusions. As with all of her work, she reminds me that each one of us human beings is a story in the process of being told, and makes me want to listen.

What do you plan to read this month? What are your favorite stories by these authors?

March Magics guest post

Today, I’m pleased to be taking part in the Diana Wynne Jones March / March Magics event, hosted once more this year by We Be Reading. I offered to write a post on Three Diana Wynne Jones Books You Need to Read Right Now, a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, and Kristen kindly agreed to make it part of the lineup. Here’s the introduction:

In an age of conflict, confusion, and uncertainty, it’s natural to reach for facts and verifiable truths to give a sense of firm ground. We might be forgiven for setting aside fantasy literature as a form of escapism, fine for comfort reading but basically irrelevant to the tasks that face us in the “real” world. An event like March Magics — which celebrates master fantasy authors Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett — might be seen as a fluffy distraction from the more important tasks on which we ought to be spending our time.

I feel that this would be a huge mistake. Our current crises stem from a failure of the imagination, which alone can bridge the gap between self and other and enable us to work out of love and empathy rather than narrow self-interest. Only through the imagination can we first conceive and then create a better future. And while undisciplined, wild fantasizing can lead us astray, it’s the truths of the imagination that can guide us through a world that seems to be splitting into a million alternative realities.

All fiction exercises our imagination, but in fantasy this aspect is brought to the fore, is made into the very substance of the story itself. Maybe that’s why fantasy has long gotten little respect in a society that primarily values materialistic success, and that in turn may be why we now seem so little versed in the ability to see through the delusions that are flying so freely.

Whatever the reason, it’s all the more reason to read and learn from the works of these two authors right now, and to share them with others in your life. I have the very great pleasure of reading out loud every night to my ten-year-old son, and I’m delighted that he’s decided that Diana Wynne Jones is one of his favorite authors. As we work our way through her books, I’m struck by how much they offer as a counterbalance to the negative forces at work today.

With these stories as part of his being, I have hope that my son’s imagination will grow strong and healthy to meet the enormous challenges in store for the next generations. And I myself appreciate them as nourishment for my own fight to preserve a world that he can grow up in.

Here are three books that strike me as particularly relevant at the moment. As you read your way through this month, I hope that you will share your own thoughts and insights with us.

Please visit Kristen’s blog to find out which three books I’m recommending you read right now, and keep visiting throughout the month for more celebration of two stellar fantasy authors.

March Magics: Bad cover art


For a final March Magics post, I couldn’t resist Kristen’s invitation to share some of my favorite (for lack of a better word) bad cover art from the works of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones. One sometimes wonders whether the art department is actively trying to lower sales with their wildly horrific concoctions.



For example, here’s the American cover for Jones’s first published children’s book, Witch’s Business. It’s hardly surprising that she took a while to catch on here, and that this book wasn’t reprinted for over thirty years.



And here’s a psychedelic cover for Pratchett’s first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic. Um….just, what???


PowerThree     Warlock   HomewardBounders

From there, things tended to get worse. Creepy, sick-looking covers for one of the funniest and most inventive fantasy authors around. What did she do to deserve this?



Mort   TruthBad

And for Pratchett, we got either bizarrely overloaded images or boring clip art with eye-crossing color combos.



Here is what I think is the absolute ugliest cover on a book I actually own. You have to be a really dedicated DWJ fan to buy this one. Oh, and this one too:



Yuck! To take the bad taste away, here are some of the GOOD covers that are out there as well. Thank goodness for these!



GOODCastleAir    WyrdCollectors







And thank you, Kristen, for all the wonderful events this month. I enjoyed it so very much and will look forward to next year.

March Magics: Share Your Books


March Magics is here! This annual event, hosted by We Be Reading, was formerly known as Diana Wynne Jones March, a celebration of the late, great fantasy author. This year the focus has been expanded to include Terry Pratchett, another giant of the fantasy world who is greatly missed. I think that pairing these two writers is a terrific idea, and will give us double the fun as we share what we love about their works.


The suggested topic for today is “Share your books” — either showing off our book collection or what we intend to read this month, or both. I don’t actually own any books by Terry Pratchett (yet), but I’m delighted to share some pictures from my DWJ shelves. Since I discovered her more than 30 years ago, I’ve known I wanted to read and own everything she wrote, and I’m getting pretty close to completion. First off, here’s where it all started:


As I mentioned in this post, I first found Diana Wynne Jones through another favorite author, Robin McKinley. When in my local bookstore I found a paperback that had actually been blurbed by her, I had to have it — and so the obsession began.

2016-02-25 07.38.43

I snapped up the Greenwillow hardcovers that were available — Witch Week, Archer’s Goon, Fire and Hemlock, Howl’s Moving Castle, A Tale of Time City — but some of the earlier works were hard to find in those pre-internet days. I still remember exactly where I was standing, along with how thrilled I was, when I found a copy of Witch’s Business (aka Wilkins’ Tooth) in the University branch of the Seattle Public Library. Later I did track down my own copy, or rather copies:


Yes, my obsession was such that I often ended up with multiple copies of the same book, in both hardcover and paperback, or UK and American editions. I scored quite a few UK paperbacks on a trip to England, but unfortunately I lost several of these in a book-lending accident when the recipient didn’t understand they were a loan and passed them on to someone else. I still have a few, like a spectacularly ugly edition of The Homeward Bounders:


In England I also bought the UK hardcover of Deep Secret, which turned out to be a good thing because for many years the only US edition available was a bowdlerized “YA” version. Thankfully, Tor finally fixed that with a reprint a couple of years ago.


When internet book buying kicked in things became much easier, and I was able to fill in most of the holes in my collection, like the Dalemark sequence (I much prefer the beautiful covers of these original Atheneum editions to the later ones made when the fourth book was published by Greenwillow):


It was still fun to hunt for treasure in real life, though. I found this copy of Power of Three in excellent condition at a library sale, and picked it up for a song:


On the other end of the cost spectrum is the limited edition of Everard’s Ride published by NESFA when DWJ was the guest of honor at their annual convention. Only 185 of these were signed, and I have one of them! I think it’s worth quite a bit now, but I’m not selling.


However they look on the outside, what I really treasure is what’s between the covers, the inimitably funny and vivid and inventive stories that have given me so many hours of reading delight. I’m looking forward to passing my collection on to my son, who’s the perfect age to start exploring the wonderful world of Diana Wynne Jones. I’d love to see your favorites — please share!

#DWJMarch: Year of the Griffin


If you’re not already aware of the fact, We Be Reading is hosting the fourth annual DWJ March event, celebrating the fantastic fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones (who, sadly, died in March, 2011). Please stop by to check out the month’s readalongs, review posts, giveaways, and many other wonderful things.

After a grueling winter, I felt that I needed some humor in my life, so this month I decided to reread one of my favorite later books by DWJ, Year of the Griffin (Greenwillow, 2000). This is a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm, which has many enthusiastic fans but which I personally find a bit grim. Happily, Year of the Griffin does not suffer from this problem, being a hilarious send-up of the “magical academy” trope, and very likely the only comic novel ever to be written about a female griffin who goes to college. I thought it would be especially fun to reaquaint myself with this unique protagonist in light of this year’s DWJ March theme, “The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ.”

Elda is the magically-produced griffin daughter of Wizard Derk, who formerly played the role of Dark Lord when his world was forced to host “pilgrim parties” sent from another, non-magical world for their fun and the tour company’s profit. Now, having rebelled and thrown out the intruders, Elda’s world is in disarray, and her mother has packed her off to the wizards’ university to get her out of the way. But the university is not in very good shape either, and having a giant magical griffin thrust upon it — along with several other new students who bring difficulties of various kinds — is quickly causing headaches for the faculty, who have better things to do with their time than actually teach.

It’s hard to make a griffin look anything other than menacing, and in the cover image of the US edition Elda appears rather fierce. (As to what on earth is happening there, I can’t explain — you will just have to read the book.) This is a bit misleading. Yes, she’s huge, strong, and dangerous, but she’s also a sweetheart. In the first chapter she develops a crush on one of her professors because he reminds her of her old teddy bear: “I want to pick him up and carry him about!” she cries. Jones somehow manages to make such absurd situations seem totally natural within the context of her created world, crowding in an astounding variety of elements familiar from fantasy literature, and affectionately poking fun at them. At the same time, she never loses sight of the emotional core of her story, which is about adolescents growing up and finding their way in life. That these two strands can co-exist and be intimately intertwined — as in the passage in which Elda becomes disillusioned of her crush — is highly characteristic of DWJ, and one of the delights of this particular book.

This is one of only two school stories by Jones, the other being Witch Week, and in many ways they are very different. The school cliques and unhappy misfits that populated the earlier book are absent in Year of the Griffin; Elda easily makes friends with a diverse group of fellow first-year students who support and encourage each other through their troubles in and out of school, in quite a heart-warming way. But the underlying theme is the same: the need for young people to discover and develop their own powers, for the betterment and healing of their world, in spite of the opposing forces of mediocrity and resistance to change. Even non-magical institutions of education would do well to heed this message.

In this book Jones reserves her sharpest satire for the faculty, particularly the University head who is obsessed with his research project of flying to the moon. His blindness to every other consideration, even as Elda and her friends keep trying to break through his ridiculously self-centered perspective with their talent and creativity, gives rise to many of the book’s funniest situations.

Rather than trying to describe these, I encourage you to pick up Year of the Griffin (preceding it with Dark Lord of Derkholm, if you want to get the backstory first). If you’re not smiling by the second page, I’ll eat my wizard’s hat.


Witch Week Day Six: Readalong of Witch Week

Diana Wynne Jones readalong
UK paperback, Mammoth

We’ve arrived at the fifth of November, known as Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night in the UK, and the last day of Witch Week according to the book of that title by Diana Wynne Jones — which, appropriately, has been our readalong selection for this event. This being the first time I’ve hosted anything like this, I’m curious to find out whether anybody else has actually been reading along! Did you read Witch Week for the first, or fifth, or twentieth time? What were your impressions, whether this is a new book for you, or an old friend? Did you have favorite scenes or characters, or were there perhaps aspects of the book that disturbed or puzzled you? If you were rereading, how has your experience of the book changed over time? Please comment below. . . and readers, be aware that spoilers are not prohibited from here on out.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Witch Week, but at least one of them was to a rapt audience of fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I know that when I first read it I was much closer to my own school experience, which in many ways paralleled that of Nan Pilgrim in the book. Like her, I was pudgy, hopeless in gym, disdained and sometimes tortured by the popular kids, and given to describing things. Thus I sympathized with Nan even as I laughed at her predicaments, such as when she thought she was climbing the rope in gym class when actually she was just making hopeful motions with her eyes closed, or when she vividly described the horrible school food while sitting next to the principal. I felt her delight when she found that she did have a talent, even if it was for forbidden witchcraft, and her vindication when she was able to transform that talent and the whole world along with it, through the creative power of storytelling.

But there is more to the book than the parts that resonate with me personally, and when I re-read it this time the darker elements came more to the fore. Witch Week, which was originally published in 1982, created a magical dystopia before it was fashionable to do so, and I think that current writers in the genre could learn much from its construction. Its depiction of a world like our own, with one important difference — witchcraft is both common and punishable by death — is subtly horrific, forming a weighty counterpoint to the comic scenes. These play upon themes we all know from our school days, like useless journal-writing exercises and teachers who think their private affairs are invisible to their students. But these schoolkids are not just threatened with being sent to detention or even being menaced by bullies; they are in serious danger of losing their lives.

bonfire night fireworks
An oddly appropriate Guy Fawkes scene (Historical Society)

Witch Week is in many ways the “anti-Harry Potter,” as Emma Jane Falconer astutely describes it in her DWJ zine, and its portrayal of evil is far more nuanced and real than the cartoon villainy of Voldemort — perhaps coming too close to home for some readers. Maybe that’s why when I looked for some other reviews, I found many that called it unpleasant and depressing. This is partly due to the fact that Charles Morgan, the second main child character in the book, is in danger of losing not just his life but his very soul as he turns toward the darker side of magic. I think that readers who are merely repelled by him are missing the point, though. A society that generates fear and hatred, and suppresses the creative human spirit, will ultimately destroy itself. Charles is a victim of that society, and his ultimate self-transformation is as important as Nan’s, though less obvious — it may be that some readers miss it altogether, in the rush of the story’s conclusion.

For me, rereading Witch Week was a delight as usual. I remain impressed by Diana Wynne Jones’s ability to create a story with so many different layers, combining farce and tragedy in a way I believe to be quite rare. Plus I still adore Nan, and cheer for her as she finally gets to ride (awkwardly) on a splendidly eccentric broomstick. Her triumph enriches all of us.

(If I haven’t mentioned that DWJ’s well-known recurring character Chrestomanci comes into the story, perhaps it’s because I find him more peripheral than in the other novels in which he appears. He plays a decidedly supporting role, even though it’s essential to the plot. If this is your first Chrestomanci book and you are a bit baffled by him, do seek out the others. It will all make sense, I promise.)

But enough from me! What are your thoughts? Please share them below, and remember that you can also link up your own reviews at the master post. Plus, don’t neglect to enter the giveaway before midnight tonight for a chance to win the above-mentioned DWJ zine! Tomorrow, a summary and preview of next year.

Witch Week Day Five: Deep Secret (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
UK Hardcover, Gollancz

Throughout this week, we’ve been considering how the power of storytelling in all its forms — folklore, myths, ballads, fairy tales — underlies and informs the writing of Diana Wynne Jones. Today’s book, Deep Secret (1997), is centered around perhaps the most profound and fundamental form of word-magic there is: the nursery rhyme. 

In spite or perhaps because of this, it’s also one of DWJ’s ventures into more “adult” territory, with a hilarious and madcap (but ultimately serious) plot mostly set at a SFF convention, with all its attendant excesses. A bowdlerized version was published for the YA market, but be sure to get your hands on the original — it’s fortunately being brought back into print by Tor Books this December, and you can enter to win a copy in the Witch Week giveaway!

For our final guest post, I was pleased that a blogger with many fascinating insights into fantasy literature agreed to take on Deep Secret, with a particular eye for the secrets hidden in its geographical setting. Chris Lovegrove posts photos on My New Shy, micropoetry on Zenrinji and book reviews on Calmgrove. After a career in music education he now has time to lavish on more selfish pursuits like reading and reflecting on books, including those he didn’t take the time over in his youth. He now appreciates Zappa’s heartfelt cry, “So many books, so little time.” Welcome, Chris!

 Patterns and Self-Portraits

I love Bristol. I love its hills, its gorge and harbours, its mad mixture of old and new, its friendly people, and even its constant rain. We have lived here ever since [1976]. All my other books [after the first nine, plus three plays] have been written here. [… ] Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. –Diana Wynne Jones, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Greenwillow, 2012)

I used to live in Bristol. Ironically I had to move away before I became aware of Diana Wynne Jones’s writing but now, apart from her plays, books for younger children and a couple of short story anthologies, I have read all her other works save Changeover and A Sudden Wild Magic. And yet I still continue to be astounded by her writings, especially how she includes — magpie-fashion — all manner of curious things in the nest of her plotlines, and how she ruthlessly includes so much of her own life in her fiction. Including, in Deep Secret, a snapshot of her adopted town.

First things first. Deep Secret is predicated on patterns. These include the sign for infinity, like a figure 8 laid on its side or a Moebius strip, which stands as a model of the Magid Universe that Jones has conceived for this novel. The more on the Ayewards side worlds are found the more magic infuses them, the more Naywards they are (as Earth is) the less magic. Straddling the waist of the infinity sign is the Empire of Koryfos, which is where one of the many secrets in this complex novel rests.

key pattern Hephaestus
Greek Key pattern on a relief (source: Wikimedia)

Another key pattern in Deep Secret is just that, a key. Specifically, a Greek key. This is essentially a line which spirals in on itself by turning a series of right angles one way, and then at or near the centre reverses direction, spiralling out by another series of right angles. In its simplest form this is called a meander pattern, its more complex variations developing into one-way mazes or even multicursal labyrinths. The Greek key manifests itself in a hotel in which a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention is being held, but there is a sense that the whole plotline is also in the form of a Greek key.

I said that Diana wrote herself and her life into her books. In Deep Secret three Earth-born brothers — Will, Simon and Rupert Venables — belong to the so-called Company of Magids, a group that oversees the functioning of all the worlds Ayewards and Naywards. It can’t be coincidence that Diana herself had three sons — Richard, Michael and Colin — who took a keen interest in her fiction; indeed, Colin’s radio talk after his mother’s death particularly mentions the “fusion of the completely ordinary and the completely magical” as typical of her way of writing, so it is hard not to imagine her including her own offspring in the novel. Colin had already appeared as a “chilly public schoolboy called Sebastian who likes The Doors and photography” so it’s not unlikely that Rupert Venables, a games designer who lives in Weaver’s End near Cambridge, is partly modelled on this same Colin Burrow, former Senior Lecturer at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Diana Wynne Jones home
The Polygon (source: Geograph)

Both patterns and personal details come together in the chapters describing a meandering car chase through Bristol, with Rupert attempting to follow possible apprentice Magid Maree and her cousin Nick. This starts off at a “tall, smartly painted Regency house” (which is a close description of Diana’s former Bristol home in The Polygon, Clifton) and then proceeds past the Zoo and some “green parkland” (part of a large public open space called The Downs), the suburbs of Westbury-on-Trym and Redland, more Regency terraces (Clifton again), “pink Gothic towers” (either Clifton College or the University Tower), “modern office blocks” (the City Centre) and “cobbled alleys” (the area around Queen Square. So far this has been described as “every part north of the harbour,” but then we come to “Brunel’s iron ship” (the Great Western) and a bit of the suburb of Bedminster (what Maree’s cousin Nick nicknames Biflumenia, because of the “two rivers” of the Avon and a bypass canal called the New Cut). There is a brief appearance of a motorway spur, out of sequence here I believe, before we find ourselves back the other side of Bedminster going up Rownham Hill, crossing the Clifton Suspension Bridge and returning virtually to where we started.

With a road map of Bristol it’s possible to trace out the route taken with reasonable accuracy, and this turns out to be . . . the rough shape of an infinity symbol. More numinous is the fictional Midlands town of Wantchester, where the SF convention takes place and where a particularly strong node exists for magic to enter and exit through. There is no such place as Wantchester, but there is the similarly named town of Winchester in southern England. The first element of Winchester is the Latin venta, meaning something like “market town,” and it’s clear that Diana is thinking of Wantchester as such a town with ancient roots, Roman or earlier; in fact the hotel is situated at one end of Market Square. My guess is that Wantchester is a fusion of all the English market towns hosting SFF conventions that Diana went to, with their generic labyrinth of streets, one-way systems, Cathedral, shopping precinct, Town Hall, river and bus station; there’s something in Diana’s descriptions that suggests that geeky unorthodox SFF conventions were a bit like a benign alien invasion in sleepy staid Middle England, and that Wantchester’s Hotel Babylon, with its confusing Greek key-like corridors, was a paradigm for all those soulless hotels that host such conventions, sumps for the human soul.

Greek centaur fresco
Chiron instructing Achilles (Wikipedia)

The joke is that it’s possible to hide your secret in the open — in nursery rhymes, for example — because there it will usually be disregarded as being mundane and ordinary. I can only scratch the surface of Deep Secret‘s own open secrets, but I hope to have revealed enough to encourage the reader to enjoy this inventive novel for its ideas as well as its narrative. There are so many themes and concepts fizzing and popping here, as references to Achilles’s teacher, Edith Nesbit’s husband, Oscar Wilde’s lover and the author of the Alice books all testify. The whole is a kind of labyrinth, where rounding a corner can reveal either illumination or shadow.

The last comment I want to make concerns the novel’s unwilling heroine, Maree. So many clues abound as to the significance of her role — Rupert’s hamlet named for a weaver, his own weaving of fatelines in a ceremony, Maree’s constant appearance leading the way — that it’s clear that she is a kind of Ariadne character (compare the character Ariadne in the film Inception) to accompany a Theseus — Rupert — in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, providing the clew of thread to lead him out of predicament.

And who is this character Maree based on? All the evidence points to . . . Diana herself. In the descriptions of Maree it is possible to discern a very faint, hazy self-portrait.

Chris, thank you for your inimitable way of pointing out the hidden secrets in our midst. Tomorrow, I hope all Witch Week readers will be back for a readalong of the book this event is named in honor of, Witch Week itself. Please join us!

Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post 


Witch Week Day Four: The Spellcoats (Guest Post)

UK Paperback, Mammoth

Diana Wynne Jones did not often write “series” books, and nor did she write many in a first person voice. But she did both with The Spellcoats (1979), third of the linked sequence of four books set in the vaguely Netherlandish land of Dalemark.  As is typical of DWJ, this series doesn’t always proceed in the way you might expect, and the first-person narrative originates in a most unusual way. Tanaqui is not just telling but weaving her story, literally making a garment of words. In so doing she both reveals and transforms the meaning of her own journey, bringing home to us once more the creative power of language.

So it’s appropriate that as a storyteller herself, Cheryl Mahoney is our guest blogger today. As well as being a book blogger at Tales of the Marvelous, Cheryl is the author of two books based on fairy tales. The Wanderers, published in 2013, follows the journeys of a wandering adventurer, a talking cat and a witch’s daughter.  Her new novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, retells “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces,” with twelve trapped princesses who decided to take control of their
story. Welcome, Cheryl!

When Lory emailed me about her Witch Week celebration of Diana Wynne Jones, I was happy to participate — especially since one of the books under discussion was The Spellcoats. Lory and I both agree it’s our favorite book in Jones’s Dalemark Quartet!

It’s possible that The Spellcoats is the first Jones book I ever read. Funnily enough, the other contender for the title is Witch Week. I read both of them when I was a kid, without realizing that either was part of a bigger series, and probably without connecting them to each other as coming from the same author.  This happens when you do a lot of reading by browsing library shelves. . .

It’s also easy to not realize that The Spellcoats is part of a quartet.  Of the four books, it’s by far the most independent.  It’s set centuries (maybe millennia) prior to the first two books in the series, and connects only in an epilogue (until the fourth book ties things together more).

The Spellcoats places us in a pre-industrial society, beginning in a small fishing village along the Great River. Our narrator is Tanaqui, a young woman who is a highly skilled weaver. When invaders from across the sea plunge the country into war, Tanaqui and her siblings flee down the river, in danger from their own people because of their resemblance to the invaders. At the mouth of the river they meet the true enemy, a powerful magician intent on stealing souls. Tanaqui must learn about her family’s past and her own magic to save her family and country. And all the while, she weaves her story into two spellcoats.

Like many of Jones’s books, this is a coming of age story, of a young person figuring out her role in much larger events. She can be slow to grasp things and makes mistakes, but she’s courageous and loyal too. I like Tanaqui, her prickliness and her fierce desire to do something meaningful, her occasional blindness and resulting self-reproach, and her love of the Great River. And maybe I just like her because, in her weaving, she’s a storyteller!

Arachne weaving (source: Artes magazine)

Jones had a gift for oh-so-human characters, with faults and foibles, who are still likeable and sympathetic. Here we get a family that exemplifies that ability, quarreling all along the river, often impatient with each other, but tied together with loyalty and love too. In a way that’s more meaningful than a picture-perfect family. Anyone can love perfect people, but loving someone even while you’re irritated with them means more — and is more realistic too! Tanaqui fights with her brothers and wants to shake her sister, but they all still love each other and support one another.

The Spellcoats has my favorite villain of the Dalemark Quartet too, an evil magician who is decidedly creepy. He’s a villain who’s not quite human — but is close enough to make it even more disturbing.  He’s a stealer of souls, which always creates a deep-down-shiver type of villain. I also love that he’s a weaver too, with that parallel to Tanaqui’s abilities.

I’ve read The Spellcoats several times now, both as part of the quartet and on its own. And you know the nice thing about a book that’s almost completely separate from the rest of its quartet? You can read it first if it sounds intriguing!

Thank you, Cheryl, for helping us enter into Tanaqui’s world. Tomorrow, our final guest post will look at Deep Secret, which partly takes place in DWJ’s longtime home city, Bristol. Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post