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 emphasizes his terror, loneliness and his longing for home….
[Jamie meets] numerous vividly drawn characters: Helen with the magical Hand of Uquar, Joris, the demon-hunter, the mythical Titan chained endlessly to his rock, Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew and The Flying Dutchman.
It is a complex story with many different threads running through it. The early allusions to characters and situations in the latter part of the story may well be missed on a first reading. The recurrence of the anchor symbol, references to mythology and the emphasis on Hope, are important elements in the understanding of the story. "Hope is an anchor" Ahasuerus states prophetically: "If you cast hope aside … all evil is cast out with it"….
It is not an easy book to read and many of the ideas may be difficult for all but the most dedicated reader to grasp. But for that reader, the story is strangely compelling—rather like a monster jigsaw puzzle in which the reader can become totally and intensely absorbed.
Judith Elkin, "Walking the Bounds," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4069, March 27, 1981, p. 339.