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Dogsbody

3/5. The one where Sirius the star is cast down to live as a dog, and gets adopted, and stuff.

Point one: yes, JK Rowling absolutely read this book at a formative time, wow, good to know.

Point two: I read this when I wanted something fluffy and soothing. It's DWJ! It's about a dog! My wife is fond of it! I asked no questions. This was a mistake.

This book is not fluffy. It is, in fact, a study in cruelty, in the overlapping ripples of it as people and creatures are awful to each other in succession. Sirius is mistreated in various ways, as is his nominal owner, a young Irish girl. The book is contrasting various kinds of cruelty – deliberate, absent-minded, childish copycat without understanding – and like. It's a good book! But boy I didn't enjoy any of that.
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The Merlin Conspiracy (Magids)

2/5. Standalone sequel to her Deep Secret, which I loved. More alternate universe-hopping magical shenanigans.

I am at a loss here. Deep Secret is charming and sweet and complicatedly kind. This book is – I don't even know what this book is, aside from a mess. It's a splattery mash of magic and personalities; it is perhaps appropriate that a literal elephant walks through this book, randomly trompling things. The plot is, eh, whatever, things happen, it more or less hangs together. But the few parts of this book I can comprehend on a meta level strike me as confused at best, wrongheaded at worst. This book is sort of about influence – magical, familial, political – in relationships, which is a way tidier explanation than anything in the actual pages, and to the extent it is a thinking creature at all, this book has no comprehension of consent or why it's important.

What the hell, DWJ?
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The Pinhoe Egg (Chronicles of Chrestomanci Book 6)

3/5. Another Chrestomanci book, this time about an egg hidden in an attic and an old witch clan feud.

Yeah yeah, I'm reading these out of order, whatever.

This is . . . interesting. The weird underpinnings of this world show through more here: part of the point of this book, for one, is Chrestomanci paternalisming all the fuck over everyone, deciding who's been naughty and nice, and handing out "justice" with all the integrity of Dumbledore awarding the house cup to Gryffindor.

DWJ almost knows this. The book is about parenting of many sorts, and family loyalty in a larger sense. It's familial pairs from start to finish: one of our main characters hatches and raises a griffin, the other has complex parental and grandparental relations, etc. And DWJ is almost pushing at the weird edges of the world she created by talking about the power inherent in these relationships, and showing us many occasions where it is abused. And then she just . . . stops.

So it's cute, and there's a whole sequence early on with a rogue magicked table running away down the street that is clearly intended to be rendered in animation. But there isn't the right there here.
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http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000FC14L2/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B000FC14L2&linkCode=as2&tag=light013-20&linkId=TWNOHX75FICNNVFJ

3/5. Cheerful little boarding school story set in a world where witches are still burned alive as a matter of national security. One class receives a note saying that one among them is a witch: shenanigans ensue.

I entertained myself greatly playing the [insert queerness here] game with this book. You know, where you take the shameful, dangerous secret everyone suspects of each other and replace every use of the word "magic" with the word "queer." It generally works eerily well, as it does here. It's fun in this iteration, where the author was not deliberately coding the text this way. It's way, way less fun in the case of, say, X-Men, where certain authors are deliberately attempting to use mutation as a metaphor for queerness, which is all well and good until you start wondering . . . um . . . if they're so interested in talking about queerness . . . why don't they put in any queer characters or, gosh I don't know, actually talk about queerness without the metaphor.

But DWJ wasn't playing that metaphor game. Other metaphor games, yeah, but not that one. So it's fun to read 'secret frightening exhilarating power' as queerness because, well, it's actually a bit more interesting than what DWJ was doing with this book: things out of balance, trying to do it right and getting it wrong every time anyway, kids being kids. Nothing wrong with it, I mean, just not as interesting as the story of secretly queer kids and their teachers.
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Reflections: On the Magic of WritingReflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Curated collection of essays, speeches and the like. Enjoyable, if repetitious. I talked my girlfriend's ear off about this book for half an hour over dinner, which means I said most of what I wanted to there and don't have much left here. Except that she was a lovely, critical, complicated person. Her analysis of Lord of the Rings actually made me half want to reread it, and that takes doing, trust me. I also identified a great deal with what she said about her writing process: mine, too, is organic and nonlinear, starting with a crystalized notion of a scene or emotional beat and building a story out from there in a 'feeling your way' kind of process. Her conviction that the author must know ten times more about a character than goes into the story is entirely opposite of my practice, but this is not the forum for the line of thinking that set me off on.

But mostly, I enjoyed this glimpse into her social consciousness. Her feminism, in particular, stemmed from a keen observer's eye, but she didn't have a lot of the tools or background to really work her way through it. Hell, a lot of the tools and background didn't exist when she was coming into feminist consciousness. So she could observe the way children's literature encodes maleness as a default as a social artifact, but she couldn't . . . interrogate that, and when she could, later, it was to subvert it by leaning hard on gender stereotypes.

So yeah. Interesting to the completest, the amateur scholar, the biographer (and oh man, how much do I want the excellent, meaty, analytical DWJ bio now?), and the fan.




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The Crown of Dalemark (The Dalemark Quartet, #4)The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Huh. I said of a previous book in this series that I didn't really understand what DWJ was doing; having finished it, I'm not sure DWJ understood what DWJ was doing.

This was supposed to pull everything together. And it tried to, I think – structurally this series is supposed to be woven (like a story coat) with characters moving through time, taking each other's places, etc. etc. And it just . . . didn't. The threads swapped out too many times and I was never sure who I was supposed to be caring about at any moment.

And, well, file this under 'thinking about it too much,' but this is epic fantasy of the sort where "revolution" is actually an incredibly conservative act that shores up the system of power rather than reordering it. You know, the evil king is bad, so we fix it by replacing him with the good king. All the problems of hierarchical hereditary political dictatorships being contained in the caliber of the dictator, you know. Here its evil barons replaced with the good king, but same damn thing. I'm not asking for the great democratization of fantasy land – that has its own perils, and they are many – it's just that let's not pretend here. Books like this play with the emotional rush of political uprising while never, for a second, meaningfully threatening the social order they spend so long calling corrupt. It's not like people aren't still writing this sort of political fantasy that parades around in the trappings of radicalism while actually being intensely conservative. I just happen not to read it that much anymore.




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The Spellcoats (The Dalemark Quartet, #3)The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Six hundred years earlier in pre-historic Dalemark, a group of children are outcast because they look like the invaders, and they set off down the river at the call of an evil wizard.

I'm starting to suspect that I don't get this series. It doesn't help that I didn't pay quite enough attention to follow along with who all the gods are in relation to whom, though to be fair, they each seem to have five names minimum and they are all each other's grandfather. I thought vaguely that this book is doing some peripherally interesting stuff with historical narratives in translation, but mostly I kept thinking, wait, she is weaving this entire story into the fabric of a coat? …how does that make sense? because I have no romance in my soul.

But the thing is, I suspect I have been reading this wrong from the beginning. I was reading for the narrative of character the first two books suggested: children growing uncomfortably into and out of power, that sort of thing. But this third book is so clearly concerned elsewhere, so preoccupied with Dalemark the country as a character. I mean, this whole '600 years ago' thing is like the flashback episode during sweeps that explains everyone's origin stories, except in this case 'everyone' is a country. I think Jones was really working at the divided land as the center of this series rather than any of the particular children she writes about. The land, and the politics and ethnic conflict its people and gods reflect back and forth. And I just wasn't paying that kind of attention.




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Drowned Ammet (The Dalemark Quartet, #2)Drowned Ammet by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Another fantasy, this one about a boy raised to be a terrorist bomber who fails in his attempt to assassinate the tyrannical earl and ends up on the run with the earl's grandchildren.

The first 80% of this was really good for me. It was playing with the role of children in political drama. Our protagonists are all tools of adult agendas, either as a murder weapon or a bargaining chip in an arranged marriage. This is the second book in this series in which a protagonist's parents turn out to be separately awful in unique and chilly ways. Except this book was facing up to that more directly and chewing at it. The book treads some predictable but nicely done ground regarding the formation of an independent self. And I'm always a sucker for these 'people become prickly friends across a painful class divide' stories.

Then the last fifth turned into a lot of deus ex machina with actual gods, and the whole structure came tumbling down, with all that careful work she'd built going nowhere. Disappointing.




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Cart and Cwidder (The Dalemark Quartet, #1)Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A deceptively simple fantasy about the children of an itinerant singer discovering, after his murder, that they are harboring a political fugitive.

I liked this. It's straightforward and old-fashioned, but with that DWJ way of passing lightly but complexly upon death and power and growing up and living in your own truth. This is one of those books where the magic isn't awoken by feel, it's awoken by thinking very hard and speaking truth to yourself.

And like a lot of DWJ books, it kept me engaged the entire time, even when what I was engaged in doing was vigorously arguing with this book's definition of honor. (For the record, my definition has a lot more self-respect in it, and specifically doesn't include a wife denying her happiness and desires in deference to her husband's political views, which she does not share). Or chewing uncomfortably over a passing reference to coercion that I found exponentially more creepy and awful than the book did. But I liked it for all that, which tells you something.




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HexwoodHexwood by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Early 90's DWJ about an earth child seeing some odd happenings in the wood near her house, which are somehow connected to a machine belonging to our unknown galactic overlords.

I was expecting something silly and probably too young for me. I got a startlingly ambitious tale of nonlinear time, fluid identities, and the overthrow of feudal power. Over-ambitious, maybe – this got a little muddled and crowded here and there.

But mostly I think this book was hobbled by being too precisely a transformative work. By which I mean I was like, "oh, we're mucking about with a bit of Arthuriana here and there, yes I see, that plays well as a lens for this reimagining of – oh. Hmm. I think that might actually be Arthur. You know, that's less interesting, it turns out." The notion of Arthur et al giving one a great deal more story room in their penumbras, as it were, whereas the actuality of Arthur locked things down and made me start thinking about how this whole feudalism metaphor collapses in on itself, and you know, DWJ you're making some very questionable choices in re the ladies, etc. etc.




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Castle in the Air (Howl's Moving Castle, #2)Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Charmingly improbable sorta sequel to Howl's Moving Castle. Young carpet merchant daydreams of a princess and adventure, right up until he acquires a magic carpet and a genie in a bottle. A sincere, if not terribly deep, meditation on the way our desires can bend the world around us, often making it more difficult to keep hold of the things we have. But it doesn't have to be deep to do what it's doing. I, incidentally, would be great at having a genie. Wish-making strategy, I could bring it, unlike these poor suckers stuck in fantasy allegories.

Honestly, though, I was most interested in just how casually this book has to saunter in order to pull off a protagonist of color. Pretty sure when I read this as a child I never clocked that at all and just mentally default white-washed him. Easy to do, given how very few clues we get. I wonder if she had to do it that way for publishing reasons? If she knew she was doing it at all? Am quite curious what could be made of an examination of the range of covers put out over the years on this one. This originally came out long long before Justine Larbalestier had to throw an internet fit to get the racist cover of Liar changed – I don't know how often authors were winning these fights before that. Or having them, even.




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Deep Secret (Magids, #1)Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Adorable. It’s a DWJ book, so it’s all multi-universe wizards who end up solving their problems while attending a scifi convention, also baby animals. It is sweet and silly and one of those stories where every plot thread converges in a charmingly improbable bow with built in deus ex machina. But it’s DWJ, so it is also wryly observed, a little dry, a little piercing. But still kind. I mean, it’s set at a scifi convention in all the embarrassing/awesome/exhausting spectacle you’d expect, and she is so droll about it – like when you facepalm but you’re grinning behind it.

I love her like this, writing about grownups but for young people. (Rather than a lot of her books about children for children, which often bore me.) She had this way of writing about adults for children that keeps them from being aliens. Hell, it’s DWJ – the aliens aren’t alien. Just a keen eye and a steady hand, that was her.




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House of Many Ways (Castle, #3)House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Not much to say. I didn’t grow up on DWJ; I was too busy reading things incredibly inappropriate for my age, like Heinlein and Dune and Watership Down (people who say that book is for kids are liars, Liars!).



DWJ stuck to her roots to the end. This is an aggressively cute kid adventure in an alternate magical world, with an ever-expanding wizard’s house and a kingdom to be saved. It all ties off at the end with an improbably neat bow. Very much the old breed of young adult, a little bit cartoonish, a little bit silly, but kind and safe right through. You know what I mean.





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