Jones, Diana Wynne
Diana Wynne Jones 1934–
English novelist and playwright.
Jones weaves contemporary themes into fantastic worlds, often creating a universe which seems familiar but also detached because of magical qualities. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Jones is praised for her ability to make imagined worlds seem as real as the world outside one's own window.
Jones's protagonists are generally youngsters living in confused family or societal situations who discover and utilize magic to relieve tense conditions. The way in which a character responds to magic reflects that character's personality, and magic often becomes a means to self-discovery and maturity. Jones's medieval-like fantasy worlds, Dalemark and Caprona, are filled with enchanted animals, witches, legendary gods, or fairy people, as well as magical instruments or magic coats. Though her worlds are somewhat obscure, Jones always manages to say something relevant about contemporary life.
Although some critics feel that the use of magic in Jones's stories provides too easy an escape for her troubled protagonists, most critics agree that her works are entertaining and effectively project positive values. Critics praise her use of comic action which allows her to avoid the problems that plague other fantasy writers, such as excessive gimmickry, symbolizing, mythologizing, or moralizing. In 1977 Jones won the Guardian Award for Charmed Life.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Something about the Author, Vol. 9.)
Cathy S. Coyle
Desperately in need of money, Frank and Jess form a neighborhood revenge service [in Witch's Business, published in Britain as Wilkin's Tooth]. However, instead of paying off their debts, they become involved with Biddy Iremonger, a bona fide witch who has a vendetta going for all of mankind. With help from the local bully and his gang, the children finally destroy the witch…. Although the English setting is interesting and the confrontations with the witch properly frightening, the "Puss and Boots" plan for her destruction is too obvious so there is little suspense as the trap develops. Moreover, the bully's references to a Black character as "nig" are offensive, and the substitution of colors or "blankety-blank" for the kids' frequent swearing is distracting.
Cathy S. Coyle, in her review of "Witch's Business," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1974 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1974), Vol. 20, No. 8, April, 1974, p. 58.
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The ogre downstairs will be wasted if it is not accorded the widest possible readership—not that young readers won't ap-preciate it but their elders should not miss it either. Like E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones uses magical events as a way of revealing character; by the way people react to extraordinary happenings you see what they are like and how they change. Here are two families faced with the need to unite and fiercely resenting it. When Mrs. Brent married Jack Macintyre, her children—Caspar, Gwinny and Johnny—found his sons Douglas and Malcolm unutterably stiff and stuck up, while the Macintyre boys thought the Brents noisy and uncivilised. Something had to be done, but the dour martinet whom his stepchildren thought entirely worthy of the title of Ogre was as bewildered as their mother, who had been used to treating her children in a relaxed way. Magic saved the day—a layer of ingredients at the bottom of the two apparently harmless chemistry sets which the Ogre, as a gesture of good will, gave to Malcolm and Johnny. Labels like Misc.pulv., Petr.Philos. and Dens drac. meant nothing to the children until experiments revealed their peculiar properties; and with each surprising chemical reaction the hostile offspring drew a little nearer to understanding one another. To carry off this idea without being either silly or didactic would have been beyond many writers but Diana Wynne Jones, with the brilliantly successful...
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["Witch's Business"] is typical of a kind of TV story style—two-dimensional, linear, endlessly this-happened-then-that-happened. Talk, events, background, acquire no reality…. There is a claim here for the actuality of evil, and I am not persuaded. However, the way in which a child's total world is conveyed is impressive: its obliviousness to adult ways and solutions. No authority but the child's own is ever recognized and adults are never appealed to, no matter how serious the trouble or great the need, as if such an appeal must be useless. When an adult does speak, it is as though a large empty building had uttered sensible sounds. The old "Our Gang" movies suggested the same sealed mini- or parallel world. Here it is frightening rather than comic, and that's good. (p. 22)
Christopher Davis, "There's the Devil to Pay," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1974, pp. 22, 24, 26.∗
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[Folk-magic] is tricky to set up. In The Ogre Downstairs … Diana Wynne Jones goes to town on something far more practical: a magic chemistry set. Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny feel oppressed by their new stepbrothers and irritable stepfather: the magic experiments at once liberate them and bring them further into opposition (the stepbrothers have a magic set, too). This may not sound like anything very much, but the adventures are beautifully propelled and sustained by Mrs Wynne Jones's imagination, working much on the level of [H. G.] Wells's Magic Shop. Who could resist animated toffee bars that seek the warmth of a radiator and melt, eat sweaters and can't easily be drowned? The children fly, shrink and change colour, but none of this seems overdone: the physical consequences of each experiment are described in ingenious detail, and the last episode involving Dragon's Teeth warriors in the shape of crash-helmeted toughs who mushroom up from the ground talking joke-Greek ('Λετμι αττεμ') is a fine stroke. Having found the fantasy in her first book [Wilkin's Tooth] a little breathless and uncontrolled, I am happy to report that The Ogre Downstairs is an unqualified success. (p. 738)
John Fuller, "Schemers," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 87, No. 2253, May 24, 1974, pp. 738-39.∗
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By now we can trust Diana Wynne Jones to sustain daylight magic with aplomb, humour and total logic. Like The Ogre downstairs, her new story, Eight days of Luke, is based on the intrusion of mythological figures into a tense, confused family situation. David suffers from a plethora of unprepossessing and unfeeling relatives—a great-aunt and great-uncle, their son and daughter-in-law, who, after grudgingly offering him a home, ignore him as far as they can. At the beginning of the summer holidays, when arrangements are in a muddle and tempers decidedly frayed, David gets rid of his accumulated misery by reciting a resounding curse against his relations. He is on the compost heap at the time and the result is sudden and surprising—the wall falls down, fire flares up, snakes wriggle out of the ground, and while he is bashing them with a spade a strange boy appears from nowhere to help him. Luke—not quite a friend, too unexpected to be an altogether effective ally—is in flight from strange, raven-supported enemies. In spite of his wayward behaviour he commands David's regard and respect, and they find unexpected help from Astrid, wife to smug Cousin Ronald, who at last allows herself to express her own distaste for the mean, bullying Allards. Astrid's name proves to be significant, for Luke and his pursuers (Mr. and Mrs. Fry, Mr. Chew and Mr. Wedding) have materialised out of Norse mythology, and the Hammer of Thor is the most...
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Diana Wynne Jones, who showed her talent for exploiting the tensions that exist between adults and children to create hilarious situations in The Ogre Downstairs, has now gone one step further and woven a mythological dimension into the plot of [Eight Days of Luke]….
The book is shot through with the most delightful humour, the effect of which is both immediate and rewardingly cumulative. All the loose ends are tied up in the final chapter when it becomes clear that, in helping Luke, David has also been extricated from the toils of his relatives. Diana Wynne Jones clarifies the identity of Luke's pursuers and their link with Norse mythology on which the plot has been built, and in doing so defends herself against the charge of wilful obscurity which has been levelled at some writers of fantasy. While admiring the ingenuity of her puzzle, I admit to being more interested by the gloriously comic superstructure that has been erected upon it: an immensely enjoyable and dramatic story which should not be missed.
Lesley Croome, "Dangerous Wishes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3813, April 4, 1975, p. 365.∗
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Jill Paton Walsh
The making of large imaginary worlds, whole kingdoms with their landscape, their peoples and their politics (usually medieval, these, with barons, and kings good and bad) is a recurrent form of story. Cart and Cwidder is just such a story. North and south are at loggerheads; vile tyranny crushes the south. Clennan, the travelling singer with his cart, journeys between the two. He and his children are just entertainers, busking in one town after another for their bread—or so the children think, but Clennan is not only what he seems.
A fantasy adventure, especially one that culminates in the gathering of armies, epic fashion, invites comparison with [J.R.R. Tolkien's] The Hobbit; but this is not another derivative book, for Diana Wynne Jones has a subject of her own to involve us in. Not the eternal war of good and evil, as in Tolkien, but the mysterious power of song is at the heart of her story. For one of the instruments in Clennan's cart is a huge old cwidder, that once belonged to one of the heroes of his songs, and if played with passion enough this instrument does strange things. The book tells us not only how Clennan's children escaped their enemies, and brought home the true heir to his kingdom, but also how Moril learnt about the power of the cwidder, and the use and abuse to which it could be put by such as he. This deeper strand, though handled with a light touch, gives subtlety and thoughtfulness to a story...
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Adroitly blended realism and fantasy, [The Ogre Downstairs] … uses the results of magic potions to further compatibility. Caspar, Gwinny, and Johnny detest their new stepfather, the Ogre, and he is indeed detestable: an impatient, self-centered bully; they dislike almost as much his two sons, Douglas and Malcolm…. Sharing troubles and the wrath of the Ogre produces more understanding, and when an angry mother decamps, all unite in an effort to improve the family situation. The Ogre's conversion to comparative sweetness and light isn't quite convincing, but this weakness is outweighed by the strengths of the story: action, variety, humor, strong characterization, and sprightly, polished writing style.
Zena Sutherland, in her review of "The Ogre Downstairs," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1975 by The University of Chicago), Vol. 28, No. 11, July-August, 1975, p. 179.
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Classic adventure is seldom hampered by social morality. In a treasure hunt the seeker is, by prescriptive right, the hero: the holder—dragon or man—is in the wrong. Since [Robert Louis Stevenson's] Treasure Island this has been one of the strongest conventions of the adventure story. The ethics of aggression have been in the past accorded a similar ambiguity; a certain concept of honour, differing in its nature from country to country or from period to period, has been considered reason enough for one antagonist to be accounted hero and another, villain. Today political and social sensitiveness is making its mark on children's stories, not only in the kind of adventure … with a topical, contemporary setting, but also in fantasy and space adventure. The change is particularly interesting in regard to Cart and Cwidder, for here the old chivalric idea of honour and a modern liberal attitude are interwoven. The villains—as so often in adventure stories nowadays—are those who curtail freedom (everybody's bogy, in fact). They are the corrupt, totalitarian earls of the South, in an unnamed country, engaged in a protracted Cold War with the North, where people can be themselves…. This slow-moving, allusive, enigmatic tale has a chivalric atmosphere, conveyed in details of costume, in slightly archaic idiom, in the rustic settings and medieval-type settlements and in the moral attitudes of Clennen and of Moril; the modern concern for...
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Dogsbody has as its point of departure dissension among the Heavenly Bodies, during which the Dog Star, falsely accused of murder and the loss of a Zoi [a symbol and agent of power], is condemned to be born on earth as a pup so that he may search for the sacred object, which has fallen as a meteorite…. [The pup, Sirius,] is rescued by Kathleen, a waif from Ireland taken in unwillingly by stony-hearted Mrs. Duffield who sees in this relative of her husband's a useful domestic slave. Child and dog endure blows and insults, and Sirius suffers a persecution from the heavens which he only understands after he has remembered, piece-meal, his own origin. Like all Diana Wynne Jones's fantasies, this is a confident, intricate interweaving of contemporary family tensions and alliances with flashes of extra-human activity, as stars and planets join in the search for the Zoi and make their several contributions to the final unravelling of plot and counter-plot. The parallel between Duffie's cruelty to Kathleen and the ruthless actions of Sirius's Companion is significant. The conflict is not a moral so much as a psychological one, and the fantasy, with its constant emphasis on light and darkness, is there to make a point about human behaviour. (pp. 2771-72)
Margery Fisher, "Darkness Against Light," in her Growing Point, Vol. 14, No. 6, December, 1975, pp. 2769-73.
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Diana Wynne Jones has a remarkable ability to grasp the basic elements of myth or fairytale, twist them sharply, then fit them without undue strain into patterns of her own making. In Power of Three, her most ambitious book yet, she has marched onto that dangerous, old, but not very straight Celtic track along which so many others have strayed recently. Still, if she has not quite avoided all the pitfalls her version is highly distinctive, funny, exciting and with one marvellous twist. It is about the peoples who mythologically and historically have displaced each other within the British Isles. Her heroes—and so for this book, the norm—are three children of the Mound People (the little folk to us) who help to bring their own people together with their traditional enemies…. The surprise comes when we realize that what appears to have been an imaginary country is in fact our own; and that the Giants with their mysterious magics and even more mysterious habits are actually our human selves.
This book tackles large themes, from ecology to international and racial understanding, taking in the individual's struggle to understand and use his particular gifts on the way. Some of it is brilliant; but ultimately it is perhaps too neatly resolved to be wholly satisfactory or even believable. Still, if in her refusal to leave her audience enough uncertainties Mrs Wynne Jones is the victim of her own intelligence let us be grateful...
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Dogsbody is about Sirius, the hot-tempered star, framed and found guilty of the murder of a young luminary by striking him with a Zoi which is lost in the process. He is banished to the body of a creature in the sphere where the missing Zoi is thought to have fallen. Sirius will be reinstated if he retrieves the Zoi during the life span of the creature; if not, he will simply die when it dies….
The idea is quite ingenious and gives Diana Wynne Jones scope for her invention, but some important things elude her, such as convincing human dialogue and moments of pathos. Confusing shifts of tone from serious to comic put the dramatic tension at risk, and the attempt to combine so many strands—stellar, canine, human, and the troubles in Ireland—over-taxes the author, even though in the end she neatly resolves the dichotomy of Sirius and Kathleen moving in their respective but interacting spheres.
Graham Hammond, "Death Duties," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3864, April 2, 1976, p. 383.∗
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To the reviewer's jaded palate, stories set in invented other worlds, involving magical apprenticeships and witchcraft contests, are scarcely more welcome than yesterday's cold fillet of a fenny snake, so it is a pleasant surprise to come across a really enjoyable example, one that avoids portentous moralizing or mythologizing in favour of a rapid and remarkably sustained comic action. Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life, in spite of touches of Joan Aiken and, in the final chapters, C. S. Lewis, is an outstandingly inventive and entertaining novel, which never for a moment loses its characteristic pace and verve. Its setting is a world whose culture has evolved through magic rather than technology, where taxpayers subsidize research into spells and warlocks appeal to their MPs when deprived of their powers. There are some splendid set pieces of witchery, such as the havoc caused during a dull sermon when the sober figures in the stained glass windows run riot, and a stone crusader thumbs his nose at the vicar. The comic invention is at once prolific yet well-disciplined, and the presentation of a parallel scheme of things is much strengthened by the introduction of a heroine from our own world, who finds the Edwardian garters, petticoats and boot-buttons all too much for her. The plot combines real surprise with psychological and fictional consistency—you must wait till the very end for the opening mysteries to be explained. Altogether a...
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[Charmed Life offers a light but] satisfying picture of a world where magic prevails. It is a brilliantly funny story which, with its seemingly Edwardian setting, is deceptively straightforward until the frightful Gwendolen's wild misuse of her magical powers reveals all the characters to be part of a formidable hierarchy, stretching from the dreaded Enchanters at the top of the scale to the mere witches and warlocks, who, for everyday purposes, are disguised as housekeepers, butlers or small-time charmers. With such a cast the magic and trickery are nonstop, but all is perfectly controlled, and while laughing at the everyday, small-scale, joke-shop display of supernatural powers, one is gradually drawn towards a more serious moral skirmish.
Julia Eccleshare, "As If by Magic," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 93, No. 2409, May 20, 1977, p. 686.∗
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[Power of Three is a] fantasy about events on the Moor after brash Orban kills a Dorig for its golden collar. The delicate balance among the local races—Lyman, Dorig (mound- and water-dwelling fairies), and Giant—is upset when the collar brings a vague but powerful curse down upon all three peoples: the Moor, it seems, will soon be covered with water. Lyman and Dorig blame each other, and all-out war impends until three Lyman youngsters stumble into a friendship with Gerald and Brenda, two Giant children. Enlisting the help of a Dorig prince, the young folk envision a bright new day when their peoples will realize that "we're all the same underneath."… Jones paints lively portraits of her Moor folk and displays an amused humor toward their world, one in which Giants steal children because, as one character says wryly, "they seem to think they can bring them up better"; and the Lymen have an engaging medieval/middle-class approach to their magic. But—horrors!—this isn't MiddleEarth, it's the 1970s. Gerald and Brenda are human kids … and the Moor is being flooded to provide a reservoir for the people of London. The story never recovers from the shock.
A review of "Power of Three," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1977 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLV, No. 15, August 1, 1977, p. 790.
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[Drowned Ammet] takes place in the same land of Dalemark as the author's earlier Cart and Cwidder, where the southern earls are forever bickering while the north is united and the Holy Isles are in between. It cannot be said that this is a powerfully imagined country, like [C. S. Lewis's] Narnia or [J.R.R. Tolkien's] Mordor: it simply is, and is with utter consistency. The hero, Mitt, is a free soul who at the beginning has a mighty childhood vision of a place "just beyond somewhere", from which he learns that where he lives is not the same as home…. He enjoys a laughing childhood, but things turn grey when his father is lost through revolutionary activity. By the taste of it, the story is about late medieval; but even then, there were political revolutionaries, and so Mitt follows in his father's footsteps. He tries to blow up the earl with a bomb. Like many revolutionary acts, he bungles it. He escapes by sea, and there is a fine description of a storm; later he and his shipmates collect a castaway, and eventually they reach the Holy Isles.
About this point in the story, an extraordinary thing happens. It takes place so quietly, like a breath from [Joseph] Conrad, that you can almost miss it, and then you have to go back to the last plain-sailing point in the story to check up on what it is (which is, of course, how every reader goes about his business). And from here on, the soft light of vision steals back...
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Younger brother of a talented witch, Cat [the protagonist of Charmed Life] seems to be the only guy on the block—and, later, the only resident of the strange castle to which the two orphaned children are transported—who can't do magic. For a while after their move, Sister Gwendolen raises all sorts of supernatural hell in protest against her less-than-fawning treatment at the hands of Chrestomanci, the aristocratic lord of the castle…. [After] Gwendolen's disappearance, Cat learns that he is one of a very rare breed of nine-lived enchanters, that his special gifts have marked him as a future Chrestomanci, and that Gwendolen has been using his powers all along to perform her wicked tricks. Jones' talents are slighted in a synopsis, for she writes with exceptional finesse—whether establishing the atmosphere of the castle, orchestrating large confrontations, or filling in the domestic scene with vital incidentals. But the framing ideas are weak. The notion of alternate worlds with duplicate populations is commonplace, if functional, and not worth all her meticulous, anticlimactic unraveling. And the revelation that the enigmatic Chrestomanci is a "government employee," charged with keeping other witches in check so they don't muck up the world (this in a world where only the rich have cars), is both disappointingly tame and disturbingly paternalistic.
A review of "Charmed Life," in...
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[In "Drowned Ammet" set in] the southern part of Dalemark (a country first described in "Cart and Cwidder"), a boy grows up with one idea in his mind, that his duty is to avenge his father's betrayal by fellow revolutionaries; he discovers when it is almost too late that his father was the villain all the time and that not all the members of the ruling family against whom the Holanders were plotting are tyrannical…. Turbulent, superstition-ruled Holand, somewhat between Nursery-land and Ruritania in atmosphere, has in this book, as in the earlier one, an extraordinary reality that comes from an alternation of precise domestic detail and deliberately enigmatic utterances. The author uncovers people's feelings in the anonymous, unmoral and beguiling way of folk-tale.
Margery Fisher, in her review of "Drowned Ammet," in her Growing Point, Vol. 16, No. 8, March, 1978, p. 3279.
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Eileen A. Archer
[Power of Three] is inventive, exciting and immensely pictorial. These words, used to praise, could however be the basis of a criticism of the book. It appears, on reading the book, that the author sees every scene as in a film, and she transfers the image on to the written page most vividly and successfully. The trouble arises when the action becomes peopled with too many characters, and in order to paint them in she has to litter the book with proper names, Gair, Ayna, Ceri, Garholt, Dorig, Otmounders, Adara, Gest etc, etc, sometimes as many as forty or fifty to a page, and so the narrative becomes stilted and disjointed as the words intrude on the wonderful story she weaves. Oh, for the film of the book, when the creatures of the marsh would rise in the mist, when the Giants would make their surprising entrance, and when the dwellers on the Moor could be seen with their beautifully worked golden collars and all the other fascinating inventions of Diana Wynne Jones.
Eileen A. Archer, in her review of "Power of Three," in Book Window (© 1978 S.C.B.A. and contributors), Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1978, p. 31.
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The vocabulary of fantasy has become familiar to the contemporary reader who will find in [Cart and Cwidder] nothing new. North and South of an imaginary kingdom are at war; the names are vaguely Nordic, the setting vaguely medieval. (p. 69)
Ms. Jones's work is highly derivative. This is particularly unfortunate with regard to her style. One of the surest marks of second-rate fantasy is the presence of formal speech-patterns ineptly handled and apparently only half-understood by the author. Ms. Jones interrupts her "high" speech with frequent modern slang, apparently without any suspicion of incongruity.
This lack of linguistic sensitivity is paralleled by what I can only call a lack of emotional authenticity. Even the hangings and murders, of which the story has quite a few, have a passionless air about them: that is, their violence is taken disturbingly for granted and arouses no convincing depth either of sympathy or of revulsion in the characters. The moral problem of violence is thus in essence avoided: violence becomes merely a counter in the plot. The fantasy kingdom is too ill-realized to make us care about its affairs, although this need not be the case even in a small-scale fantasy: witness the marvellously realized landscapes and people in Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Ms. Jones's characters have a mechanical, derivative quality. One cannot escape a suspicion that even the "magic" element...
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The setting [of Drowned Ammet], a different section of the same imagined group of late medieval earldoms as [Cart and Cwidder], is interesting, and the main characters—the strong, active girl, Hildy, and the Oliver-like, street-wise Mitt, who appealingly represents the deserving but downtrodden poor—are generally well portrayed. However, the story falls victim to its author's excesses. For example, Mitt's concern for social justice is admirable, but when, as a six- or seven-year-old, Jones gives him lines like "Can't the poor people get together and tell the rich ones where to get off?" it all starts to sound unlikely. And, in the last third of the book, when the old gods get almost hyperactive and demonstrate a truly impressive array of tricks (e.g., instant island raising) the plot goes beyond credulity. Although Drowned Ammet has it's appealing moments, Jones has not been able to shape them into a satisfying whole; both Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy … and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series … are better crafted examples of historical fantasy.
Chuck Schacht, in his review of "Drowned Ammet," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the April, 1978 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1978), Vol. 24, No. 8, April, 1978, p. 85.
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She is a clever and witty writer, Diana Wynne Jones—too clever in some of her books; you admire the means, ultimately not so much the ends. Not so, however, with her latest book Drowned Ammet, set like the earlier Cart and Cwidder in the mythical country of Dalemark…. Escaping plot and counterplot, the three [protagonists] sail away to the Holy Islands, assisted during storms by the two gods whose worship is centred there, and who, in the undignified guise of poor Old Ammet and Libby Beer, are carried through Holland in effigy during the annual sea festival and thrown into the harbour.
The origins of this are anthropological rather than mythological perhaps, some familiar enough but all properly rooted in a living and integrated plot. The evoking of magical powers is strong, idiosyncratic and interesting. With water the prevailing image, I am reminded of Dannie Abse's dictum on poetry, that like a stream it should be clear right down to the depths, yet leave you in the end not quite able to touch bottom. For this is clear water all right; you can see what the author is doing, follow the progression and recognize the sources of her ideas. None the less you do find yourself floating sometimes; there is enough that is whispered and hinted at, that you can almost hear and see and yet not quite. Perhaps the mythical setting helps give to it its integrity—even if there is less scope for fireworks, it does mean that the...
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Watching a novelist really getting it all together is one of the great pleasures of life. This is why I so hugely enjoyed Diana Wynne Jones's [Drowned Ammet]—itself surely ranking as one of the best examples of 'sub-creation' of recent years…. [Magic] is not used arbitrarily but to further the developing insights of the main characters. Humour and near-farce intermingle with vivid danger and action; relationships and responsibilities are portrayed squarely and unsentimentally. There are echoes towards the end of [John] Masefield and [Ursula K.] Le Guin—nevertheless, the whole brew is unique. It is a story which illustrates perfectly Jill Paton Walsh's image of 'the rainbow surface'—for here indeed is a brilliant outside with real pressure behind it.
Dennis Hamley, in his review of "Drowned Ammet," in The School Librarian, Vol. 26, No. 2, June, 1978, p. 161.
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Diana Wynne Jones has already written twice about the country of Dalemark. In this new, and remarkable, book [The Spellcoats] she explores some of its prehistory, the archaeological evidence for which consists of two woven coats into which a narrative had been worked. The Spellcoats is the story of that weaving and of the weaver.
Stories of imagined worlds are acceptable only so far as they present inhabitants with whom we can feel some bond of sympathy. Miss Wynne Jones captures our interest and concern from the first page. Here is a united and reasonably happy family, father and three boys, two girls, living in a small and mainly hostile community, the village of Shelling. This stands on the bank of [a] river, and the river dominates their lives and puts a bound to their experience. War comes to the country, and father and the eldest son go off to fight for the King. (pp. 221-22)
In the adventures which follow, supernatural forces and dark magic are skilfully balanced against the everyday quarrels, affections and fun of family life. These are seen through the eyes of Tanaqui, the weaver, a girl of character whose role is to be the intermediary between the living and the dead. She, for all her impatience and quick temper, has the gift of seeing both sides of the story, and through her the fortunes of natives and Heathen are united against a common enemy.
There are some spine-chilling...
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As the fantasy genre fastens its grip on children's writing its landscapes seem to be growing more shadowy and indistinct. The detailed, concrete worlds of Tolkien and le Guin, in which topography, social, economic, religious and political structure, language, flora and fauna slowly and painstakingly given the solidity of the pavement outside the reader's front door, have given way to a sort of generalized other country with pseudo-medieval village or tribal communities, stark ranges of mountains, enclosed valleys, decadent cities, sinister priesthoods and wars and rumours of wars.
Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark, for instance, seems insubstantial, at the service of her stories rather than served by them. I found The Spellcoats, in which five supernaturally gifted children foil the attempt of the evil mage Kankredin to destroy the river, "the soul of the land", and thus come to power, somewhat flimsy. The central symbol of the river is a strong one, and is skilfully kept at the forefront of the book; but the characters are bland and uninteresting, their human qualities dwarfed by their magical ones.
Diana Wynne Jones's best work, Charmed Life, Dogsbody and Eight Days of Luke, has had a quirky humour which the short, flat sentences of The Spellcoats cannot convey, and a subtlety which here turns to cleverness. The magic confuses rather than clarifies.
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[The Magicians of Caprona] is a sprightly, pleasant, ingenious book, but it is neither as strong nor as multi-layered as Charmed Life; the author seems here, as in her other recent work, to be marking time….
Neither the rivalry between the families nor the threat of defeat generate much tension. Only in the fifth chapter, when Tonino and Angelica, captives of an evil enchantress, are forced to act out a degrading Punch and Judy show for their captor's sadistic amusement, does the action rise to any pitch of excitement or suspense. Otherwise, it is light-hearted fun, played out against a rather ready-made, stagey background, written with flair but without penetration.
Neil Philip, "To Combat the Forces of Evil," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3332, April 18, 1980, p. 25.∗
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Mary M. Burns
Like Joan Aiken, [Diana Wynne Jones] has a remarkable talent for creating a time which never was yet which seems believably familiar. The fantasy [The Magicians of Caprona] is set in the imaginary duchy of Caprona, located in the vicinity of Siena, Pisa, and Florence. It has its own history and geography, fluctuating in consonance with the squabbling neighboring city-states…. The enchanter Chrestomanci, the enigmatic and fascinating personality developed in Charmed Life …, plays a less dominant role in the Capronian capers, yet his presence serves as a necessary element in the resolution of the problems. A gorgeous concoction of humor, suspense, and romance, the narrative has the gusto and pace of a commedia dell'arte production. (pp. 407-08)
Mary M. Burns, in her review of "The Magicians of Caprona," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1980 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. LVI, No. 4, August, 1980, pp. 407-08.
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What a brilliant and talented writer this is! [In The Magicians of Caprona Diana Wynne Jones] breaks all the usual rules of fantasy with impunity, secure in her own virtuosity.
We are in Italy. Caprona is a Renaissance City State, ruled by its Duke and threatened by enemies with familiar names like Siena and Florence. But how strange; while some people travel by coach others have motor cars. It appears that we are not in a conventional Italy after all but in one parallel to our world, in a world where magic is a respected and indeed indispensable trade. In Caprona magic is traditionally the business of two families, the Montana and the Petrocchi, and also by what seems to be a long tradition the Montana and the Petrocchi are enemies. As if spell-making was not hard enough you—if you are a Montana—have always to be worrying about what the Petrocchi may be up to.
Then life becomes even more complicated because a foreign enchanter seems to be at work, one who is bent on the destruction of Caprona. (p. 192)
I must say no more about the plot, because full enjoyment of its delights depends on a degree of surprise. Miss Wynne Jones tells a magnificent story for all it is worth, but she is far more than a master narrator. She has created a whole world, consistent in all its details, and peopled it with living and fascinating beings, clever and perverse, comic and eccentric. There are some...
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The Homeward Bounders is a fantasy novel with elements of science fiction, in which Diana Wynne Jones develops the idea of war gaming by playing with live characters in an infinite number of different worlds. As in her previous novels, her apparently inexhaustible imagination takes in many moods and themes. The book contains terror, humour, adventure, everyday problems of survival and references to mythical characters.
The story begins in our own world in 1879 when thirteen-year-old Jamie stumbles unknowingly into forbidden territory and witnesses "Them" (faceless grey-cloaked figures) playing a mysterious game involving minute worlds, huge dice and complicated machines. This is the "Real Place" from which They control what goes on in different worlds, having previously absorbed the reality of those worlds. The details of this are only revealed later, but Jamie has already seen too much and must be "discarded" to the "Bounds" between the worlds. There are, of course, certain rules: he may not "enter play" in any world and every time a move ends in his field of play, he will be transferred remorselessly on to another field of play. He is allowed to return home—if he can find home—and only then can he re-enter play. He has become a "Homeward Bounder". The full horror of the implications of this, is only gradually revealed to the reader, as Jamie relates his experiences in a pleasantly chatty, intimate style which subtly...
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Good and evil are in opposition on a cosmic and a local scale at the same time in The Homeward Bounders. The extraordinary power of this narrative is the result of strong feeling combined with brilliant technique. The author does not lay down her theme or her plot bluntly but allows the shape and point of the story to come to the reader clue by clue, as events are suffered, and assessed, by the victims of 'Them' and most of all by young Jamie, central among the Homeward Bounders. The idea that 'They' are playing an enormous, multi-part war-game with whole worlds is chillingly real because of Jamie's words and actions, as he slowly realises the penalties of being a random piece on the board, gathering information from the people he meets—dark, enigmatic Helen and the acquiescent slave Joris among them—and using intellect and emotion in judging the enemy's weakness and deciding on his special duty for the future. At times Jamie seems, simply, the questing, questioning spirit of Man, and this is confirmed by his bitterly real dealings with the Promethean sufferer who encourages his independence of mind: at other times he is a boy driven by gigantic, inexplicable forces. This is not a book that could have an 'ending' as such, but it has a conclusion, and one that sums up the elusive hints and emotional tides of a book precise and perceptive in details and immensely powerful as a whole. (p. 3882)
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The central theme [of The Homeward Bounders] is appallingly probable. What better explanation of the mess we are all in than to have it the result of the dispassionate manipulation of Them. [Edward Lear and Thomas Hardy] had their own words for it, and now Diana Wynne Jones enters the big league with a story of cosmic proportions. It is some measure of her success that she is believable, humane and humorous. What is more, she contrives a kind of happy ending, but denies happiness to her own hero. When They have been defeated, Jamie is left alone on his travels, as the anchor who holds all the worlds in place. It could be worse. He has friends in many worlds, but wandering is a lonely business.
As you may gather, there are difficulties in this book. Reading it is not to be undertaken lightly. It demands concentration and total suspension of disbelief. The rewards are a magnificent story, lots of good humour, shrewd characterisation, and a deeply disturbing theme presented with deep wisdom and rich understanding. Miss Wynne Jones' biggest book to date and probably her best, too. Fortunate those children, and adults, who can meet its challenge. (p. 213)
Marcus Crouch, in his review of "The Homeward Bounders," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 45, No. 5, October, 1981, pp. 212-13.
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Diana Wynne Jones is a prolific novelist of enormous range who can raise hairs on the back of the neck one minute, belly laughs the next. A certain untidyness and self-indulgent prolixty have characterized many of her novels to date, especially the group set in an imaginary medieval period. But she also writes about modern children, witty, abrasive, articulate, often neglected, always resilient: they need to be resilient if they are to cope with the emanations of the paranormal that threaten their lives.
Diana Wynne Jones's new novel, The Time of the Ghost, is one of her modern stories. The title is instantly forgettable one may think as one picks up this book but as, three hours later and in a state of bewildered admiration one lays it down again, realization dawns: the title pinpoints the theme exactly. Mrs. Wynne Jones is skilfully exploring time—and the ghost.
In the conventional literary ghost story it is the ghost of past happenings that rises, walks, haunts the present demanding retribution. Diana Wynne Jones defies this convention; for here it is from the present that a ghost returns to a period seven years past, desperate to avert a catastrophe in its own "now"….
Not since K. M. Briggs, that great folklorist and author of Kate Crackernuts, has the supernatural been so firmly and convincingly handled. But here the horror of dealing with evil spirits, the blood rites, the...
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Atmosphere is all, in true ghost stories. Motive and situation may be infinitely plausible, characters carefully shown to be vulnerable, but the thrill, the conviction of ghostliness, depends on less detectable, less tangible elements, on appropriate combinations of words and rhythms and on such selected details of place and circumstance as will strike at the senses. Too little atmosphere and the story will fall flat: too much, and it will turn into farce. In The Time of the Ghost Diana Wynne Jones shows impeccable control of her material. In particular, she uses description scrupulously so that we get to know just as much of the school buildings and the surrounding country as we need, and no more. Emotion and atmosphere grow out of these settings. In the school house four sisters, ferociously individual and frustrated, decide to punish their parents, whose attention is turned from them to the boys in their care. They plan that thirteen-year-old Sally shall go away on a visit; then the older Charlotte, the younger Imogen and Fenella, will see how long it is before their parents notice she is absent. They do not realise that Sally has been experimenting in Black Magic with a precocious schoolboy and has invoked a spirit which, by a fateful semantic accident, has lodged in an old doll used by all the sisters in the past in vaguely sinister and shiversome games. The situation comes to the reader slowly, after an electrifying first chapter in...
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A. R. Williams
[Although The Time of the Ghost] is told by a ghost, the ghost is puzzled rather than tortured; at least, the ghost is tortured only to the extent that she does not quite know who she is. The four Melford sisters (one of whom she might be) have parents who are so preoccupied with the running of their private school that one of the sisters absents herself without being missed by anyone. It would be improper to reveal the rest of the plot but apart from the personalities of the girls the book's charm lies in its weirdly hilarious vignettes of the school and its boys, the family life of the girls, and often and just as entertainingly in the combination of both. A sinister thread does come to the surface occasionally but one never knows how seriously to regard it and perhaps the readers may feel cheated at the end, but not many will mind. Miss Wynne Jones has broken the rules of fantasy before and got away with it. If single adjectives are required, there is a choice of whacky, grotty or kooky, but certainly not grotesque, mind-boggling or quaint. (p. 34)
A. R. Williams, in a review of "The Time of the Ghost," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 46, No. 1, February, 1982, pp. 33-4.
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Comic witches are fashionable just now—likewise comic ghosts and familiars of various kinds. Fortunately, for every facetious tale centred on a broomstick-version of the banana-skin joke, there is one which uses humour as a way to set the anarchic impulses of youth in a new light. Like the necromantic academies described in recent years by Barbara Willard and Jill Murphy, Larwood House School is plagued by magic going awry but in Witch Week the magic is not a curriculum subject but a secret and forbidden undercurrent. This is one of those fantasies which describe in familiar and concrete terms an alternative world, one which diverged from our own back in the past when legislation against witches had to take into account the persistence of a genetic freak…. Diana Wynne Jones takes everyday incidents (lost running-shoes, illicit night-expeditions, water-fights) and gives them an edge of weird improbability, while the familiar rivalries and alliances of schooldays are made strangely urgent by the impending investigations from staff and outsiders. There seems no limit to this author's inventive energy; ingenious in plot, with a mock-casual twist at the end, her new book offers one more rollicking and provocative study of human behaviour. (p. 3984)
Margery Fisher, "Hauntings," in her Growing Point, Vol. 21, No. 4, November, 1982, pp. 3983-86.∗
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Among the post-war generation of children's writers none is more individual and more unpredictable than Diana Wynne Jones. Of her next book all one can be sure of is that it will be exciting, amusing and unlike the last. For one who treads the tricky paths of fantasy that is saying quite a lot.
In some ways the society shown in Witch Week is not unlike that of present-day England. Larwood House School is; in a nasty way, similar to other boarding schools. The pupils are not much more horrid than others; the teachers are odd, but then some of them are in real life. But something is wrong, as if we were looking at reality through a distorting glass. There is this preoccupation with witchcraft. And in an apparently civilized society witches, of all ages and both sexes, are burnt. With the Inquisitor ready to move in at a moment's notice, no wonder that witches and their probable fate occupy more than a fair share of the children's thoughts. (p. 231)
Miss Wynne Jones' favourite necromancer Chrestomanci comes to the rescue …, but not before we have had some pleasurable scares. The solution involves some explanations that belong to science-fiction more than fantasy.
Adults, who often find it more difficult than children to accept incongruities, may be bothered that so revolting a subject as death by burning can be treated in a funny way. I must admit that one or two things in this story stuck in...
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Someone some day had to write a story about a boarding school without romanticism or self-pity, and this could have been it. The children [of Witch Week] fill familiar roles: Nan is unpopular, Estelle is pliant, Theresa is a bully, Charles a loner, Brian a victim, Simon a born leader. But they are living in a world in which witchcraft is dreadfully alive, where Guy Fawkes succeeded in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, and history developed differently. By a tremendous effort of witchcraft the two worlds are wrenched together again, and everyone comes to themselves in an ordinary comprehensive. It doesn't actually end 'So it was all a dream', but there is something of the same let-down that Diana Wynne Jones should have found a way of conveying the stifling conformity of a closed community and the crooked subterfuges the children develop to preserve their identity, and then refused to take her creation quite seriously. But it's still a good story.
Dorothy Nimmo, in her review of "Witch Week," in The School Librarian, Vol. 30, No. 4, December, 1982, p. 359.
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