Because I care about y’all and I do not want you to leap into one of Diana Wynne Jones’s books not knowing what to expect, I have hereby decided to construct a list of her books that says what world they are set in and what they are about. And, since I love Diana Wynne Jones, and I find it difficult not to compliment her extravagantly every time I say her name, I shall also say one thing about each of her books that charms me and pleases my heart.
My Most Favorite One
Fire and Hemlock
The world it is set in: Modern England. Mostly. More or less.
The premise: Fire and Hemlock is a (one might say the) retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”. As Polly is packing her things to go to Oxford, she finds a book of short stories and is bewildered to find that she remembers the stories being quite different to what they are. The more she thinks about it, the more she finds that she seems to have two sets of memories: one quite ordinary, and one – not quite. In one set of memories, she had a longtime friend called Tom Lynn, with whom she used to make up stories about alternate, heroic versions of themselves that fight giants – and these stories had a disconcerting habit of coming true.
Something that pleases me: Tom sends Polly packages of books in the post. Massive packages of brilliant, necessary books.
The One that Uses a Number of Myths Including the Flying Dutchman
The Homeward Bounders
The world it is set in: Oodles of different ones.
The premise: Jamie discovers that a group of scary and powerful creatures he just calls Them are playing a vast and complicated board game with his entire world. He is made a Homeward Bounder, constantly compelled to travel from world to world trying to get back to his Home world. The rule is that if he gets back Home, he can stay. Along the way he picks up a girl called Helen, who has a right arm that can turn into anything, and a boy called Joris, who was a slave and a demon-fighter on his Home world. They are excellent characters, particularly Joris, who might in fact be my favorite Diana Wynne Jones character of all. He has pockets full of useful things.
Something that pleases me: The world with lollipops and circuses where everyone is a bit drunk all the time.
The One that Is Slow to Start but Eventually Becomes My Other Favorite
The world it is set in: Modern England – again, more or less, in the fictional town of Wantchester
The premise: Rupert Venables is a Magid, responsible for caring for Earth and nudging it in directions that will help it to accept magic, and when his mentor dies, he has to find a student to become the junior Magid for Earth. He does this by arranging for all his possibilities to attend a fantasy convention. There are centaurs, and panel discussions where everybody screams at everybody else, and a quite cool use of the nursery rhyme about going to Babylon.
Something that pleases me: Janine’s ugly jumpers (sweaters). Also, the anxious Scandinavian receptionist who pushes buttons and doesn’t necessarily understand English.
My First One
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
The world it is set in: A generic sort of epic fantasy world
The premise: It’s a travel guide to doing a tour in the generic sort of epic fantasy world. There are entries for things like Nunneries (“any Nunnery you approach…will prove to have been recently sacked”), Dreams (“They will be telling you something you need to know for the next phase of your Tour, but they will not be doing so very clearly”), and High Priest (“Sometimes he is fat, thick-lipped, and corrupt, sometimes tall, thin, shaggy-browed, and corrupt”). Thirteen-year-old me read a lot of Mercedes Lackey, and was charmed by the whole thing.
Something that pleases me: Look, everything. But if I had to choose just one thing, this book taught me the word numinous.
The One You’ve Heard Of
Howl’s Moving Castle
The world it is set in: A fairy-tale sort of world
The premise: As the eldest of three, Sophie Hatter does not expect much out of her life; and when her younger sisters go off to seek their fortune, Sophie stays home and minds the hat shop. But when a curse from the Witch of the Waste turns her into an old lady, she gives up minding about what she is supposed to do, and becomes housekeeper for the Wizard Howl, who is rumored to eat the hearts of young girls in the village. But she has made a deal with his fire demon that could end the curse on herself.
Something that pleases me: As in many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, our own world makes an appearance. Diana Wynne Jones is brilliant at showing us our own world, with its technology and weather and strangeness, through the eyes of characters who come from very different places.
The One That Is Dedicated to Neil Gaiman and Is Confusing as Hell
The world it is set in: An English village. Also, another planet. Also, a strange area that doesn’t seem to obey normal space/time laws.
The premise: I hardly know. There is a young girl called Ann who is recovering from an illness and beholds some strange things when she looks out her window. She wanders into Hexwood, which is a bewildering time-shifting place controlled by something called the Bannus. She is perpetually running into a boy called Hume, who is never the same age when she sees him, and his guardian, Mordion, who looks like a death-mask. Arthurian legends are involved somehow, and so are virtual reality machines. Make of that what you will. I am only mentioning it because if you have not read Diana Wynne Jones before, I do not recommend that you start with this one. It is complex and tricky, and I am never sure if I’ve understood what happened. Also, it took me at least six tries before I even remotely liked it.
Something that pleases me: The scene of Hume reinventing the wheel
The First Chrestomanci Book, Which You May Also Have Heard Of
The world it is set in: An alternate version of Edwardian England. There are pleasure steamers and petticoats and a courteous, frightening enchanter called Chrestomanci.
The premise: Cat and Gwendolen are orphans. Gwendolen, who is becoming a powerful witch and plans to rule the world someday, arranges for them to be adopted by Chrestomanci, an enchanter responsible for regulating magic on their world and any movement between worlds. This doesn’t go quite according to plan, as Chrestomanci forbids Gwendolen to use magic and then takes no notice of her, which she (as future ruler of the world, in her own mind) does not appreciate. Hilary ensues.
Something that pleases me: The game that the children invent of levitating a mirror and hanging onto it to fly across the room. I WOULD PLAY THAT GAME IF MAGIC WERE REAL.
Okay, that is enough for now. It is nine in the evening and still in the mid-eighties, and I have not screamed curses at the gods and stuck my head in a cold shower for nearly an hour. Will need to promptly rectify that situation, and then curl up with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which I made myself want to read again by finding excerpts of it to make you want to read it.