Still being short on time to catch up with my reading, I thought it would be a good idea to dedicate a few Recommended Reads posts to different spec-fic authors whose work I enjoy. After all, recommendation doesn't have to be about books that are new (or new to me); introducing new readers to an old favourite is a sheer delight, whilst on their part there's the excitement of discovering an established author whose back catalogue is ready to explore. In that spirit, my first chosen author – Diana Wynne Jones – was a prolific and brilliant fantasy writer who sadly died in 2011, leaving behind her so many wonderful books that it's hard to know where to start.
Wynne Jones wrote mainly for children, who she claimed didn't need things spelling out for them nearly as much as adults do. That probably explains why her books are so re-readable. If some children's literature is like a frozen puddle, shiny yet superficial, then Wynne Jones's books are icebergs: full, rich and deep. I grew up with them, and I continued to buy and read new ones as they were written – into my adulthood, and right up until she died. Not many authors have gained my whole-hearted loyalty in that way, and I think that speaks volumes for her ability as a writer to surprise and delight children and adults alike.
Some authors are essentially one-trick ponies. They have a single key idea, which becomes a series in which every episode follows the same basic formula. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily – but what I always loved about Wynne Jones's books was that I never knew what I was going to get. She must have been brimming with thousands of ideas. Over the course of her life she wrote a series of related but standalone books (the Chrestomanci sequence), some of which had almost nothing in common except the reappearance of the titular character; a completely unconnected quartet (Dalemark); another trio linked by a different central character (Howl); and about 20 more one-off novels – all for children. She also wrote a handful of books for older readers, equally clever and equally surprising, and all imbued with both a great love and a gentle mockery of fantasy and its trappings. Oh, and in addition to all that, her Tough Guide to Fantasyland should be required reading for any fantasy writers who want to avoid the many pitfalls of cliché.
By now, I'm hoping that those of you unfamiliar with Diana Wynne Jones are already racing off to your nearest bookstore. But just in case you're not sold yet, here's a little more information about my favourite five of her works. (And let me tell you, it wasn't an easy choice.)
1. Howl's Moving Castle. My childhood favourite. This may partly be because I was a little bit in love with Howl (which, according to a Wynne Jones interview I saw once, is fairly common; for a self-obsessed, dishonest, responsibility-shy coward, Howl seems to be remarkably appealing to girls of a certain age). The protagonist of the story is Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three daughters who is convinced she'll never have any adventures (since everyone knows that if three siblings seek their fortune, it's the youngest who'll succeed). She's resigned to working in her family's shop her whole life, until she is turned into an old lady by the Witch of the Waste and makes her way to the moving castle of the notorious Wizard Howl. Even as an adult, I find this book a delight: its playing with tropes, its presentation of our own familiar world as a strange place from which strange magics can emerge, the moving castle itself … oh, OK, and I'm still a little bit in love with Howl. (Incidentally, the Miyazaki film based on the book is also a favourite of mine, although it's a completely different beast from the book.)
2. Fire and Hemlock. My adult favourite (though technically another children's book). I find it hard to put into words how much I adore this novel. I first read it as a child, and didn't really understand everything that was going on, but I was left with the lingering impression that there was more to understand. Books like that can go one of two ways: one, and sadly more frequently, they don't stand up to repeated reading, and the meaning you once sensed in them turns out to be nothing more than hand-wavy vagueness on the part of the author; or two, they grow as you grow, gradually revealing the layers you always knew were there but didn't have the understanding for. Fire and Hemlock is very much in the second, more unusual category. I've read it many times; each time, I figure out something I didn't twig before, and each time, I become a little more in awe of the sparky intelligence that put it all together. The book is essentially a reworking of the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, but it's also about books and love and the power of imagination and – well, just read it.
3. Dark Lord of Derkholm. Oh, how I wavered between this and Deep Secret, another more adult-oriented novel. Deep Secret is more of a classic fantasy in which magic users secretly live alongside ordinary people, and everyday things (in this case the rhyme 'How many miles to Babylon?') have hidden meanings. Add parallel worlds (which Wynne Jones is very keen on), great characters and an affectionate sendup of fantasy fans – among other things – and you get a little of its flavour. But in the end, I had to go with Dark Lord of Derkholm, which manages simultaneously to play with all the hoary old fantasy clichés and be a proper fantasy story in its own right. (The problem with satirical fantasy, I often find, is that it forgets to replace the tropes it's holding up for ridicule with anything, so it ends up being a series of set pieces rather than a coherent story in its own right. DLoD impressively manages to avoid that problem.) The book is set in a world to which 'tourists' from our world come expecting the Full Fantasy Experience: a magical quest peopled with stock characters, culminating in the expected battle with the Dark Lord. But all this takes a very real toll on the inhabitants of that world, and so they seek a way to end the tours for good.
4. Charmed Life. This was the first Chrestomanci novel to be written, though not the earliest in the chronology. Still, if you've never read any of the Chrestomanci books before then this is the best place to start. The premise of the books is that in a set of parallel worlds (of which one is our own, and one is similar but with magic users), most people have a double in each world. But occasionally, a person is born without any of those alternate versions in other worlds, meaning that he or she has several lives and is a powerful magic user. 'Chrestomanci' is actually the title given to the most powerful of them all, a nine-lifed enchanter whose job it is to oversee magic in the related worlds and ensure it isn't misused. I'd recommend any of the Chrestomanci novels – they're all great fun and well plotted – but Charmed Life is the perfect introduction.
5. The Dalemark Quartet. I'm cheating a bit here, but the thing about these four books – unlike any of Wynne Jones's other work – is that you really need to read them all to get the full effect. The first three are set in the same world at different times and places; the fourth links the disparate storylines together. So although you can read Cart and Cwidder or The Spellcoats or Drowned Ammet as individual works, and enjoy them, my view is that the experience is made much richer by rounding them off with The Crown of Dalemark – which is my favourite of the four, but also the one that depends most on prior knowledge of the others. So for that reason, I recommend you read them all. I'm not even going to attempt to describe what they're about. You'll just have to trust me on this :-)
So there you have it: my potted guide to Diana Wynne Jones. If you've never read her books before, do read one and let me know what you think. If you're already a fan, I'd love to know which is your favourite!