I’ve become a fan of the works of Diana Wynne Jones. She’s the author of more than forty young adult fantasy books and known especially for the Crestomanci series. She was first published in 1973 and a number of her books have been reprinted as a result of the halo effect of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I can’t think of an author more deserving of such an effect. Wynne Jones’ books are richly textured, highly imaginative, and just plain fun to read.
Consider the plotline of Howl’s Moving Castle. The story takes place in the magical land of Ingary, where Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, and bound for a life of failure. Ingary is an enchanted land and magical tradition dictates that in a family of three sisters, all three will strike out to seek their fortune, but only the youngest will succeed.
So Sophie settles down and takes up her father’s practise of making hats. Her’s is a lonely life, spent more talking to the hats than to other people, but her hats become popular when the clients who wear them tend to succeed. Suddenly, the evil Witch of the Waste arrives, accuses Sophie of challenging her, and curses her by changing her into an old woman. Sophie isn’t particularly upset by this. She figures that she’s had her bout of bad luck, and now she can be done with it. She strikes out into the countryside, until she runs into Howl’s Moving Castle.
Howl’s castle is as the term describes: a great steam-belching stone building that walks across the moors. Wizard Howl has a reputation of eating young girls’ hearts, but being an old woman, Sophie sees no risk in sidling herself into the castle as the self-appointed cleaning lady, and she soon finds that Howl is nowhere near as evil as his reputation suggests. He is maddeningly self-centred, and loves to woo the young girls until they fall in love with him at which point he loses interest (thus “eating” their hearts), and Sophie does not approve of that. But as Howl goes up against the Witch of the Waste, Sophie ends up helping him, and starts to lose her heart to him herself.
I’m barely scratching the surface of the plot here. Howl’s Moving Castle is richly textured, and populated with interesting — if somewhat self-centred — characters. There’s Michael, Howl’s apprentice, who’s in love with one of Sophie’s sisters; there’s Calcifer, the fire demon Howl keeps in his fireplace. There is Sophie’s sisters who, unlike Sophie, rebel against the magical expectations imposed on them. There’s Howl’s sister and her family, who lives in modern-day Wales. All of this is bound together in a compelling writing style that’s at times funny and frightening.
It’s no surprise to me that Hayao Miyazaki, the brilliant mind behind such anime classics as NausicaA, Castle in the Sky and Spirited Away, has decided to adapt Howl’s Moving Castle to the screen. The book is chalk full of imagery that would give an animator great delight to draw.
The story comes to a satisfying, albeit quick, resolution, as both Sophie and Howl face up to the inadequacies of their characters and change. I’m left wanting more. Miyazaki’s version of Howl’s Moving Castle will see limited release in American (and, hopefully, Canadian) theatres on June 10, 2005. And I’m eager to get reading Wynne Jones’ sequel, Castle in the Air.
The Merlin Conspiracy
Also from Diana Wynne Jones is The Merlin Conspiracy; quite possibly her longest and most complicated novel. The story follows two primary narrators through a plethora of characters and situations, not to mention multiple versions of Earth. A fifteen-year-old girl named Arianrhod (“Roddy” to everyone) starts the narrative from the parallel Earth world called Blest. She’s a member of the King’s court and is stunned to see the new state magician (called the “Merlin”) apparently coming under the sway of evildoers out to corrupt the magic of her country. She calls for help, and gets advice from her grandparents (one of whom is a magical force of nature), but it quickly becomes clear that if she wants to stop the conspiracy against her country, she’ll have to do it herself.
She doesn’t do it alone, however. Fifteen-year-old Nick Mallory, born of another parallel world but residing on modern-day Earth temporarily, possesses the gift of being able to walk between the worlds. As appears to be the theme of many of Wynne Jones’ books, Nick is far more magical than he realizes. When he stumbles upon this gift, he runs into the character of Romanov, who has been paid by mysterious strangers to kill Nick. Romanov, being basically a good character and seeing that Nick is no threat to anyone, backs out of his contract and offers to train Nick in his magic someday. Nick is left free to slip between the worlds, until he hears Roddy’s plea for help, and is consigned to help her by her grandfather.
The twin plotlines meander considerably — Nick’s moreso than Roddy’s — but the story is rich with detail and interest, and the various threads weave together into a satisfying whole. Nick visits a parallel Earth where the sun’s radiation is deadly and civilization has taken to living in shadowy valleys, wearing these fancy embroidered clothing woven by poor outcasts that live up top. This section lasts a few chapters and, at first glance, it isn’t clear what relation it has to the main storyline, but it’s an interesting set piece well told that makes the book richer because of it.
The story is told in the first person, flipping between Roddy and Nick as they pursue their ends of the narrative. It’s funny reading Roddy and Nick’s impression of each other, with Nick falling head over heels for the girl, and Roddy barely willing to give him the time of day. The Merlin Conspiracy, written in 2003, offers up the promise of a sequel, and the romantic in me hopes that Wynne Jones follows up on it.
If you’re looking for something easy and fun to read that’s a bit deeper and more complicated than Harry Potter (not that Harry Potter is particularly simple), then pick up one of Diana Wynne Jones’ works. You’ll eat through the text like a hamburger, and be satisfied at the end of the meal.