Review: Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones

I am selectively craving Diana Wynne Jones right now.  Diana Wynne Jones is so great that I’ve devoted nearly half of the spinning bookshelf my father made me to her books alone.  (The spinning bookshelf denotes great favoritism and also contains Martin Millar, J.K. Rowling, and Rumer Godden.)  (Er, just so we’re clear, it doesn’t spin perpetually, like those spinny restaurants.  It’s more like spinning earring racks at gift shops, except bigger and wooden and it has books on it rather than accessories.)

Does anyone else take great notice of words whose letters are all standards, which is to say, letters that neither stretch tall (like t) nor drop low (like g)?  All-standard words include scarecrows, savannas, and renascence; if you are willing to fudge a bit and include the letter i (like I am), you can have reconnaissance and accessories, which is what brought this to mind in the first place.  What’s also fun (if you are a total dork already) is to find words that are all standards and can be typed with only one hand, like scare and raze and verses.  Continuing on the assumption that you are a total dork, it might please you to know that the bottom row of your keyboard has six standards, the middle two, and the top six again; that the bottom row has the fewest non-standards (only one); and that the top row has a pleasing and palindromic (if you count i as standard) pattern of non-standard, standard standard standard, non-standard non-standard, standard standard standard, non-standard.

But, Witch Week.  It’s set in an alternate world quite like ours, except there is magic there, and the magic is illegal.  If a witch is caught, she or he is burned straightaway.  Mr. Crossley, the English teacher of Class 6B at the Larwood House boarding school, is dismayed, therefore, to find an anonymous note amongst his textbooks accusing someone in 6B of being a witch.  Is it plump, unpopular Nan Pilgrim, descended from the famous Archwitch Dulcinea Wilkes?  Is it perpetual victim Brian Wentworth, the deputy headmaster’s son?  Charles Morgan with the evil stare and the encoded journal?

(Not telling.)

I’ve said I like Diana Wynne Jones because her characters tend to move from selfishness to self-awareness; I also like her because her nicest characters have flaws (which they learn to work around), and her nastiest ones have virtues (which sometimes get lost in their pursuit of – well, whatever it is).  Her books do not look kindly on small-mindedness or selfishness, in the villains or the heroes.  The day gets saved when people overcome their fear and selfishness and act like their best selves.  Not in a moralizing way.  Just in a, sort of, look how good humans can be sort of way.

Spoilers in this paragraph only!  And if you have read Witch Week already, please tell me what you think about this.  I ordinarily come away from a Diana Wynne Jones book feeling absolutely satisfied with the ending, even if it’s a quite sad ending (Homeward Bounders breaks my heart every time); with Witch Week I never feel this way.  Their whole world disappears at the end!  It is less than ideal!  And sure, they end up with a nicer version, but they don’t get to be witches anymore!  Plus, how come the unpleasant boys – Dan Smith & Simon Silverson – get to stay at Larwood, and even be friends with the sympathetic characters, while the unpleasant girls – Theresa and her lot – all get shipped off to the other school?  Hmph.

It took me several tries to like Witch Week, which is typical of my relationship with Diana Wynne Jones’s writing, but now it’s one of my favorites.  Whereas my little sister, to whom I read many DWJ books aloud in our youth, has never warmed to it.  If you are thinking of reading it, I’d suggest reading Charmed Life first, just because – well, mainly because I like Chrestomanci, and I feel you will appreciate him more as a character in Witch Week if you are already familiar with him and his awesomeness.

(awesomeness – all standards.)

I have not said enough about Diana Wynne Jones on this blog.  The extent of my love for her is not adequately reflected here.  But all that’s going to change, my friends.  I love Diana Wynne Jones and I am totally in the mood to reread all the Chrestomanci books, and the Dalemark Quartet, and the books with the Magids, and the books with Howl; and I suspect I am in the mood to give those of her books that I haven’t been mad about in the past another chance.  I am counting 23 of her books that I could totally go for right now.

Other reviews:

the stacks my destination
Puss Reboots
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Let me know if I missed yours!

39 thoughts on “Review: Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones

    • Oh how I love it when people ask me questions like this. Her books are all so very different to each other, so it’s hard for me to choose a good starting point. Howl’s Moving Castle is very fairy-tale-y and accessible, and Charmed Life is also a wonderful one.

      Do be aware, though, when you’ve read one of her books, her other ones tend to be quite different! I think part of the reason I don’t always like her books on the first reading is that I expect them to be similar to the last book of hers that I read.

    • *laughs* Yeah, I think to notice that, you have to be pretty compulsive and insane. I’ve been noticing them for years and it was very validating to find my friend tim did the same thing. 😛

  1. I used to love her books as a teenager, but haven’t read one for years. I have no idea which ones I read, but I feel I should try one again. Thanks for reminding me about how wonderful she is!

    • You’re welcome! I hope you find her enjoyable as an adult. Have you read Fire and Hemlock? It’s a retelling of the ballad of Tam Lin. To me, it’s easily the best of all her books, all complex and drawing for oodles of literary and mythological traditions.

    • I love it that she has so many books! There are very few authors who write that number of books and I still manage to like nearly all of them. She’s quite old now though – I’m going to be heartbroken when she dies.

    • Oh it is so time to change that. Fire and Hemlock, or Howl’s Moving Castle. Deep Secret is also good – it took me a few tries before I liked it, but it’s great! It’s set at a fantasy convention and it makes me laugh every time I read it.

  2. I know what you mean about Witch Week; I was a little disappointed by it, but read it again and it sort of improved upon further acquaintance.

    Grrrr! I love DWJ, and almost all her books I own are in a box a long way away. The library has a few, but not my favourites :o(

    I do have with me Howl’s Moving Castle (which I read again last week and re-remembered how absolutely much I love it. I have a particular fondness for the saucepan song, for some reason (perhaps because it links the two worlds? (I’m trying to avoid spoilers, and also gaining too many parentheses))), and Fire and Hemlock, which I also love. And that will have to keep me going for now.

    P.S. I recently read a review of a new one coming out this month… *Googles frantically* Aha! Here is some info:

    “2009 BOOK COMING Due out this year, 2009, is a new Diana Wynne Jones novel Enchanted Glass. A stand-alone book, not part of any series, there are the expected magicians, but it also includes giant vegetables, revenge by cauliflower cheese (?!) and fortune-telling using racing tips. Something to look forward to, Enchanted Glass will be published by HarperCollins in the UK and Greenwillow in the US”

    • Aw, poor you! When I was in England for a year, far from DWJ’s oeuvre, it was very difficult. I had brought Fire and Hemlock with me, I think, but the library didn’t have any of her others.

      I had no idea she’d got a new book coming out! Thanks for the heads-up – Amazon says April of this year? I’ve kind of been wanting a standalone book from her for a while, so I am super excited now!

    • You read the other Chrestomanci books and not this one? Chrestomanci comes in about two-thirds of the way through. But her non-Chrestomanci books – of which there are zillions – are equally wonderful. 🙂

  3. I’ve only read Howl’s moving castle so far but I love it! I also own Book One of the Chronicles of Chrestomanci. I guess that doesn’t make me an official fan of DWJ. I must read more of her good stuff!

    • Did you read the sequel? To Howl’s Moving Castle? There are actually two – well, not exactly sequels, but books set in the same world, and with some character overlap. Castle in the Air is the next one, and then House of Many Ways, which was published recently, comes after that again.

    • I can’t help suspecting you of sarcasm (sarcasm is all standards! AAAAAA this is a sickness!), because this all-standards business seems so incredibly dorky to me. But once I started noticing them I couldn’t ever stop again.

  4. You know I’m a convert. I must get to her again – I think my son has the first three Chrestomanci books somewhere… he’ll never notice if I whisk them away to my secret hoard. 😉

    • I hope you enjoy them! The Chrestomanci books are often the only ones I see in bookshops in the US, but hopefully you’ll be able to find her others as well, as you’re in Britain and she’s British…

  5. First of all, I loved the dorky introduction 😀

    Secondly: The day gets saved when people overcome their fear and selfishness and act like their best selves. Not in a moralizing way. Just in a, sort of, look how good humans can be sort of way.

    Yes! I so love this about her.

    I had forgotten how Witch Week ended, but now that you’ve reminded me, I agree. I wasn’t happy either. I’ve been craving some DWJ lately too…I wonder if I should re-read one of my favourites or just get to a new one..

  6. I found your blog through Nymeth’s, and so glad I did. I really appreciated your comment there about judging books. Dianna Wynne Jones would be on my revolving bookshelf, too, if I had one! I have to disagree about reading Charmed Life first, though. I liked the mysteriousness of Chrestomanci, the way he showed up in Witch Week, and then the surprise of gradually finding out his origins. (When I was a teenager I cooked up a whole theory on the reading of the Chrestomanci novels for maximum non-spoileriness and pleasure.)

    • Aw, thanks!

      Tell me your theory! I love a good theory on the order to read books in – am totally willing to change my mind about Charmed Life being the ideal first book. I read Lives of Christopher Chant first myself, thus don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about.

      • Well, gee, I just found out on wikipedia that Dianna Wynne Jones herself recommends a specific reading order:

        Charmed Life
        The Lives of Christopher Chant
        Conrad’s Fate
        Witch Week
        The Magicians of Caprona

        Who am I to argue? My order was Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Charmed Life, Magicians of Caprona. Conrad’s fate wasn’t written yet when I was a teenager, but I think both it and the Pinhoe Egg Belong at the end of the list, because they were written so much later and the style is a bit different.

      • My order was (as far as I recall) The Lives of Christopher Chant, Charmed Life, Witch Week, Magicians of Caprona, Conrad’s Fate. When Conrad’s Fate came out, I read it out loud to my little sister without reading it first – so we were both reading it for the first time. It made for a vivid reading experience, so I like Conrad’s Fate a lot now. But yeah, I think of The Pinhoe Egg as slightly separate to the others.

  7. Aha! Just to clarify, I read the first Chrestomanci volume, which appears to have the first two stories in the series. I didn’t search for any more (the book was a loan from one of my kids’ friends), so now I can have the pleasure of reading the second two volumes–the second one begins with Witch Week.

    • Oh, gotcha! I forgot they were organized that way, into volumes – silly of me, as I have the volume with Witch Week & The Magicians of Caprona. Enjoy them! They are so great!

  8. I love Diana Wynne Jones, too. Love the Chrestomanci series, Howl’s Moving Castle and subsidiaries…but my favorite? Is The Merlin Conspiracy. I go back to that one again and again. Great stuff. I’ll be on the lookout for more DWJ goodness!

    • I like The Merlin Conspiracy, though not quite as much as Deep Secret, which precedes it. On the other hand, Merlin Conspiracy is relatively new and I haven’t necessarily reread it enough times to form a solid opinion of it. I’m so excited that DWJ has a new book coming out!!

  9. But why does i count as a standard? Sure, it’s not continuously stretched, but it definitely invades the upper territory with its dot.

  10. I LOOOOOVE Witch Week! Although it is a very 80’s sort of world, I must say. And I was disappointed by the ending, too. Except doesn’t one of them keep on being a witch? I haven’t read it in about a year, so I may be wrong.

    I do so love how she has so many layers of complexity in her books. When I first read WW I hated Charles, because he seemed gross and creepy and possibly a serial killer. But by the third or fourth time around I really liked him, because he’s so interesting and colorful and probably what a lot of loner kids are like. And I like his change-around at the end. Anyway~

    ALSO, yeah, Enchanted Glass is coming out in April. I’ve only had the link up in my sidebar since October! 😉

    • Wow, I am fail with the sidebars. My sister has apparently known about Enchanted Glass forever too. Sigh.

      I think you’re probably right about someone remaining a witch, it’s sort of implied Charles might be one. I was disappointed on Nan’s behalf, though, because I identified with her the most. Why couldn’t she stay a witch in the proper world? And yeah, DWJ’s characters are wonderful – I have grown more fond of many of them upon successive rereadings of her books.

  11. I LOVE WITCH WEEK. And you know, it’s the only DWJ I’ve yet read. Don’t hate me. Or hurt me. At least I read it every year for my birthday, which is during Witch Week.

    BUT! You mentioned to movement from selfishness to self-awareness, which I love, and the complexity of the characters (also loved). So I don’t have much to say now … BUT! Though there is an initial disappointment with the ending, it works. You see, despite the lack of overt magic, there still is a great deal of magic in their new world. Nan can still invent, etc, and people are where they will be the most happy: Simon can still feel superior but now with Brian (who enjoys the same thing), while Dan can be bad. As for Teresa et alia, they get to be happy being prim and smug in their own homogeneous world, which is what they preferred all along. The girls who preferred difference get the public (wait, private? flippin’ England!) school experience and all its differences.

    So yeah, it works for me. It’s just subtle.

    • I can see what you mean, about everybody sort of getting what they wanted, but still I wasn’t completely crazy about it. I was sort of okay about Nan, but Charles loved being an enchanter! I was crushed he didn’t get to keep being one.

      • Charles loved it, yes, but what he wanted was to not feel powerless and for people to understand him. Now he’s got friends and is autonomous, a better deal than just magicking shoes.

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