Celebrating Witch Week and Diana Wynne Jones

Witch WeekI did a lot of reading of Diana Wynne Jones books last spring, so as you can imagine, I was excited to get involved when Lory of Emerald City Book Reviews invited me to participate in her Witch Week celebrate of all things DWJ (among some illustrious company!)

According to DWJ, “Witch Week” is set between Oct 31st and Nov 6th, a special time “when there is so much magic about in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen.”  Lory has invited five bloggers to share guest posts on favorite DWJ books, and I’ve contributed a review of The Spellcoats, the third (but independent) book in the Dalemark Quartet.  I’ve reviewed this book previously on my own blog, but I expanded and added new ideas for this event.

Visit Lory’s blog for the Guest Post…and you may want to check out Lory’s Giveaway too!

Book Review: The Crown of Dalemark

The first three books of the Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones seem for all the world like they have nothing much to do with each other—until we finally get to Book Four, The Crown of Dalemark, which ties it all together. The funny thing is, it didn’t come along until twenty years after the third book. It makes me wonder if Jones had the fourth book in mind all along, or if she looked back at three slightly-connected books and decided to bring them together.

The book opens with a return to a familiar character, Mitt, who in Drowned Ammet botched an assassination and escaped to the “free North” of Dalemark. Unfortunately, he now finds himself the victim of blackmailing by a northern Earl—his friends will suffer if he doesn’t assassinate Noreth, a noble girl who claims to be the daughter of the One, and plans to unite all of Dalemark.

In the second section, we jump some two hundred years into the future, to a much more modern-feeling Dalemark, and meet Maewen. She happens to be the perfect image of Noreth. A magician(ish) sends her back to Mitt’s time, to take the place of the disappeared Noreth. With hazy ideas of how the history of the time is meant to turn out, Maewen tries to lead her small band of followers, including Mitt and Moril, the minstrel from Cart and Cwidder, to ride the “green roads” and unite Dalemark. But the ancient evil we met in The Spellcoats is stalking them, and someone in Maewen’s band is a traitor.

I really wanted to love this book—and I ended up liking it, so that’s not really so bad. This is much longer than the first two books, and it has a much more sweeping, epic feel to it. We’re dealing with complex plots and significant events, and the fate of the country as well as the particular characters plainly hangs in the balance. Continue reading “Book Review: The Crown of Dalemark”

Book Review: The Spellcoats

My favorite book of Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet is Book Three: The Spellcoats.  Oddly enough, it exists completely separately from the previous two books, to the point that (barring one epilogue-type note at the end), you can’t tell you’re in the same series when you read it.  In fact, I read my library’s copy a couple of times without ever realizing it was part of something else!

The Spellcoats is set centuries (millennia?) before the previous two books in the quartet.  Tanaqui, a young woman who is a highly skilled weaver, lives with her father and her siblings along the Great River.  When invaders from across the sea plunge the country into war, Tanaqui and her siblings flee down the river, in danger from their own people because of their resemblence to the invaders.  At the mouth of the river they meet the true enemy, a powerful magician intent on stealing souls.  Tanaqui must learn about her family’s past and her own magic to save her family and the country that will, eventually, become Dalemark. Continue reading “Book Review: The Spellcoats”

Book Review: Cart and Cwidder – Drowned Ammet

One of my goals for Once Upon a Time was to reread Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, which I last read in high school and largely forgot.  I successfully read them…but didn’t manage to get to reviews!  Today I’m going to look at the first two books, Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammett.

Cart and Cwidder is about a family of musicians traveling in a cart through Dalemark.  And just to clear up the title, a cwidder is a musical instrument (somewhat like a lute, I think).  Moril is our main character, the dreamy one of the family who isn’t sure about his talents.  The family is on their annual trip through South Dalemark, ruled by oppressive earls, back towards the “free North.”  Moril and his siblings find themselves suddenly thrust into the center of a brewing war when their father is killed and they must undertake a vital task he left unfinished.  Oh, and that cwidder in the title?  Definitely magical. Continue reading “Book Review: Cart and Cwidder – Drowned Ammet”

Hatching a Gryphon, and a Lot of Chaos

After rereading all of Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, I think I may finally have a favorite–the final book, The Pinhoe Egg.  It’s a perfect blend of new characters, old friends, and high hilarity.  And a great fit for Once Upon a Time!

The Pinhoe family has been practicing their secret magic for generations, avoiding the eye of “the Big Man,” Chrestomanci, who is a kind of magic regulator for the government. The plot beyond that is…complicated.  When Gammer Pinhoe, clan matriarch, goes insane (possibly cursed by a rival magical family), chaos, upheaval, and magical feuds are inevitable.  And there’s a magical egg, long-held by the Pinhoes, which comes into the possession of Cat, ward of Chrestomanci Castle, and hatches into a baby gryphon.

I loved seeing Cat take center-stage again, even more than he did in the first (written, though not chronological) book, Charmed Life.  Cat in this book still struggles with trust and openness, but has also come into more confidence about himself and his abilities.  It’s a nice development from his previous book, while being remarkably consistent for two books written almost 30 years apart!

Centering much of the book around Chrestomanci Castle also meant seeing more of its other residents, and here was where I was especially glad that I’d read the whole series in order pretty quickly.  I’m sure that when I read this before, I’d forgotten who most of the supporting characters were.  This time I still had everyone in mind and could draw all the connections between books.

Along with familiar faces, there were delightful new characters too.  Marianne Pinhoe is our second major character, alongside Cat.  She has some parallels to Cat in the first book, actually, as someone with strong magic who has never fully realized it.  She’s less passive than Cat was, and spends much of the book trying to deal with problems no one else seems to be able to see.

The Pinhoes en masse (and especially Gammer Pinhoe) are a wonderful group, mixing humor deftly with much more sinister undertones.  They form an interesting contrast to the spell families in The Magicians of Caprona.  In both cases we have a busy, clannish family, full of aunts and uncles, fiercely proud of their magic and having an uncanny ability to know what’s going on with family members.  There, however, the Montanas clearly care about their young family members and want to protect, teach and encourage them.  The Pinhoes seem largely bent on stifling Marianne, or at least forcing her into the mold they consider appropriate.  Parents often come off very badly in Jones’ books, and this is a definite case where that happens.

But even with some sinister undertones, there are still hilarious incidents of magical mayhem, including a runaway kitchen table that rampages through town…

If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that I had to suspend disbelief on one of the central plot points.  The Pinhoes are supposed to be practicing magic secretly–and yet they seem to be very bad at hiding anything.  They’re practically on Chrestomanci’s doorstep, they fly around on brooms, and a cursed table runs down Main Street.  I honestly don’t know how Chrestomanci managed to not notice them.  Possibly they were only keeping their particular method of magic secret, not the fact of doing magic in general…but if that was the point, it wasn’t clear to me.  However…the rest of the book is so good that I’m willing to just run with that one idea and not ask too many questions!

So now that I’m at the end of my chronological reread, I do have some thoughts on reading order!  I think there’s actually a lot of room for flexibility, but the books can generally be looked at in pairs.  Charmed Life and The Pinhoe Egg; and The Lives of Christopher Chant and Conrad’s Fate each pair together and should be read in order–although you could make a case for reading either pair first!  Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona are much more removed from the series and could be read at any point, although probably not first.  And the short stories in Mixed Magics really are best when read in connection to their relative books (see review for details!)

Got all that?  🙂  Maybe the real conclusion here is that it doesn’t matter all that much which order these are read in…because they’re just wonderful books anyway!  My favorites are chronologically at the beginning and the end, The Lives of Christopher Chant and The Pinhoe Egg, but every installment is excellent!

Author’s Site: http://dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:
A Journey Through Pages
Charlotte’s Library
Taking a Break
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Pinhoe Egg

Mixed Magics

Being a completist, I had to include the four Chrestomanci short stories in my reread of the series by Diana Wynne Jones.  Fortunately, they’re conveniently gathered together in one book, Mixed Magics.  All four stories are excellent fun and well-worth the read!

“Warlock at the Wheel” – This story follows directly on Charmed Life, focusing on a very minor character from that novel.  The Willing Warlock comes off very badly in a confrontation with Chrestomanci, and decides that the answer is to travel to another world.  All seems to go according to plan–until the car he steals in this new world turns out to have an enormous dog and a very demanding child in the backseat.  Soon, the hapless Warlock is being bullied by the dog, the child, and even the car.

This is a funny little story that is definitely best read immediately after Charmed Life.  Personally, I would have had trouble making the connections otherwise!  The Warlock is a great character who intends to be villainous, but is rather too woebegone and put-upon to be very successful…

“The Sage of Theare” – In the very well-ordered world of Theare, the gods are horrified by a prophecy regarding the Sage of Dissolution.  They try to get rid of the recently-born Sage by sending him to another world, but Chrestomanci and company return him to his proper place.  When the Sage grows up, unaware of his destiny, Dissolution (and serious timeline muddling) are in store.

I can’t think too hard about this one, because it makes my head hurt.  There’s a lot of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” business going on, with events happening in reverse and the Sage on the hunt for himself…yeah, don’t ask, just read it!  Chrestomanci only has a small role, but all the same, his arrival at the Court of the Gods in his dressing gown is one of his best moments ever!

In terms of the larger timeline, I haven’t the slightest idea where this fits in among the others, as there isn’t much to place it in time!

“Stealer of Souls” – This story, on the other hand, belongs directly after Magicians of Caprona.  It’s the most Chrestomanci and Co. focused.  Cat (of Charmed Life) is deeply displeased by the arrival at Chrestomanci Castle of Tonino (of Magicians of Caprona), but they have to work together when they run afoul of a nasty magician intent on stealing souls.

I enjoyed seeing Cat again, and seeing Tonino from an outside perspective, after mostly being in his point of view in his book.  There are also some nice ties to The Lives of Christopher Chant, with a few of those characters returning.  And besides that, there’s a wonderfully sinister plot afoot, and some excellent mayhem and humor.

“Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream” – Carol possesses the wonderful ability to not only control her dreams, but to bottle, syndicate and sell them.  When she finds herself unable to dream her one-hundredth dream, her parents take her off to meet with Chrestomanci, who packed up his family after the previous short story for a vacation.  We follow Carol into her dream world, where we learn she has several principle characters, and they’ve gone on strike.

I love the whole concept of this one.  The idea of bottling dreams just fascinates me.  As a writer, I’m also intrigued by Carol’s struggles.  Essentially, she has writer’s block!  Even if most writers don’t have characters who literally mutiny, I think we all know what that feels like…

This is a quick little read with only the four short stories, but it has all the charm of Jones’ novels, and offers some nice extra pieces about the characters.  It feels sort of like a bonus to the rest of the series!

Don’t forget, you can win a signed copy of my fairy tale retelling, The Wanderers! Just put #WanderersGiveAway in your comment to enter.

Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:
Calmgrove
Aelia Reads
I am sad I couldn’t find many reviews…anyone else?

Buy it here: Mixed Magics

Feuding Magical Families in Caprona

The next book in Diana Wynne Jones’ splendid Chrestomanci series is The Magicians of Caprona. This is another one focused mostly not on Chrestomanci and his Castle, taking the action instead to Italian-influenced Caprona.

In Caprona, there are two great spell houses, the Casa Montana and the Casa Petrocchi, and the two families have been bitterly feuding for two centuries (although they both get on well with Chrestomanci). The story begins with family problems within the close-knit Casa Montana, like young Tonino’s apparent lack of magical aptitude, or the question of finding an appropriate suitor for Cousin Rosa. The situation escalates, with threats from neighboring city-states, and only hope to save Caprona—finding the true words to “The Angel of Caprona,” said to be given by an angel centuries before. Soon both families are on an increasingly urgent search for the song, while forces are massing for war and something sinister is going on at the Duke’s palace…

Here we see again one of Jones’ best types of protagonists, the earnest boy hero, seemingly unlikely to succeed, who discovers hidden abilities. I don’t mean to be dismissive by classifying—it’s a type of story that works very well! Tonino is a particularly appealing boy hero, considering his love of reading, and his talent of talking to cats.  Boss cat Benvenuto is also a delightful addition of the story–I do have this fondness for cats in books, you know! 🙂

I particularly enjoy the spell houses, with their huge clan of aunts and uncles and cousins all living companionably together, making magic and cheerfully getting into one another’s business. It’s warm and friendly and vivid. I also love their magic, which centers around sung spells. Singing off-key or muddling words can (and does) have disastrous consequences.

Chrestomanci has a relatively small role here, though he does make a flying appearance early in the crisis, so his arrival near the end isn’t quite a deus ex machina. Besides, he performs his usual role of not actually solving the crisis, just helping the lead characters to solve the crisis themselves.

I wouldn’t read this one first, because it could make Chrestomanci a somewhat confusing presence, but it’s stand-alone enough to read anywhere after Charmed Life.  I have just one more Chrestomanci novel left, plus a few short stories, which I plan to review soon too!

Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:
Masha du Toit
The Aroma of Books
Readers By Night
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Magicians of Caprona