Friday, February 29, 2008

Karen Karbo

Minerva Clark Gets a Clue
by Karen Karbo
Recommended Age: 13+

Minerva Clark is a completely average 13-year-old girl living in Portland, Oregon. She hates her thick legs, her frizzy red hair, her big feet, and her freakish 5’8” height. She worries about pretending that Reggie isn’t her best friend (because he’s a boy) and that Hannah is (even though she is evil). She loves her pet ferret Jupiter, worships her glamorous cousin Jordan, and chafes under the parental authority of her three older brothers, who take turns bossing her around because her father is always out of town on business and her mother left them to teach yoga in Santa Fe.

But things are about to change for Minerva Clark. Big time.

The first hint of impending change comes when that perfect princess, cousin Jordan, is arrested right in front of Minerva, shortly after a vaguely suspicious bookstore clerk secretly slips something into Jordan’s hands. The third hint happens when the same bookstore clerk turns up murdered the next morning. That’s a pretty big hint. But in between is the second hint, and the biggest one of all, when an electrical shock fries the part of Minerva’s brain that worries about her imperfections. Unable to feel bad about things she can’t do anything about, Minerva suddenly finds herself able to do something about a surprising number of things...including the murder of bookstore Dwight and the framing of cousin Jordan.

It is fun to see the change that comes over Minerva after her accident. Fun for us readers, that is. It isn’t so much fun for her concerned brothers, who have never known her to lie, back-talk, and sneak around poking her nose into other people’s business so much. But seeing herself as “just right” soon leads other people to see her in a new light, too. Which would be all to the good, except for one thing: the killer is still out there, and he or she knows Minerva is getting too close for comfort.

I enjoyed Minerva’s adventure, especially as narrated by its increasingly mouthy and clever main character. If Minerva survives this book, and if you enjoy it as much as I did, you’ll probably be looking out for the next Minerva Clark mystery, coming soon in paperback: Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
Recommended Age: 8+

Here is one of the classic children's books that started coming out in the 1960s (the current edition begins with an "appreciation" by Maurice Sendak, the friendly monster guy). Charmingly illustrated, it's somewhere in between nonsense humor à la Alice in Wonderland and gently satirical allegory à la Gulliver's Travels. It opens with a little boy, Milo, who is utterly bored with everything, doesn't know what to do with himself, and always wants to be somewhere else no matter where he is. At school, at play, books, games, he doesn't see the point of anything. Then he comes home and discovers a package in his bedroom, a gift from some unknown person, which turns out to be a make-believe tollbooth. He gets into his little electric car, having nothing else to do, and drives through it.

Next thing he knows, he's driving through a faraway land, the Kingdom of Wisdom, where he meets all kinds of outlandish characters and encounters various perils. He becomes fast friends with a "watchdog" named Tock, whose body is a ticking alarm clock, and a snappily dressed giant beetle called the Humbug. He visits the Doldrums, then Dictionopolis (the city of words, where letters grow on trees) ruled over by King Azaz the Unabridged. He meets the Spelling Bee (who spells every other word he says), he gets thrown into prison by a policeman/judge/jailer called Short Shrift, and then he gets sent on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from exile in the Castle in the Air.

I won't describe all the fantastic people and places they see along the way; it would spoil the fun! The story is of the moral variety, but very entertaining and clever along the way. The moral is, that there's a reason you have to learn everything you're supposed to learn (though you may not know it yet). Your life will be better, and the world will be better too, if you know math and literature, and look for beautiful things to see and hear, and above all if you learn to THINK. Because ignorance is dreadful, and a world without rhyme or reason (like, maybe what the world is becoming now) is not worth living in.

For all that it's a morality tale, and kind of an educational book in a way, it's also irresistably charming. There are little Wizard-of-Oz-like remarks, like how lots of people swim in the Sea of Knowledge and don't even get wet. Sendak begins his appreciation by pointing out how Tock the watchdog would be nothing more than a cliché of a didactic character who tells Milo that what he has to do is THINK, if in his next line he didn't hop into the toy car and say, "Do you mind if I get in? I love automobile rides." Every time Tock is alarmed, his alarm goes off. The humbug is a funny character too, blurting out "seventeen!" every time a math question is asked, and wavering between blustering courage and simpering cowardice.

And I haven't even begun to list the amusing touches in the story, such as "subtraction soup" and "division dumplings" and "eating your words" and a novel use for having the word "but" on the tip of your tongue. This is a book with a big vocabulary, so it will challenge children to enlarge theirs. It's just a fantastic, rich little book, with really cute illustrations by Jules Feiffer who was himself the author of several children's books. Sendak calls them "scratchy pen drawings" and they are, but they capture the mood and the characters so well!

Sherryl Jordan

The Hunting of the Last Dragon
by Sherryl Jordan
Recommended Age: 12+

Set in the West of England, A.D. 1356, this is the tale from the twilight of the Middle Ages, when dragons were passing from the realm of live superstition to fanciful folk-tales, when the bubonic plague was a fresh and painful memory, and when the idea of an educated populace reading mass quanitites of books in English was still but the dream of an ambitious abbot whose monks copied books by hand with goose-feather quills and parchment.

One of those monks is assigned the task of recording the first-hand account of Jude of Doran, a swineherd's son who, by chance alone, survives the destruction of his village and family by the last, late-blooming dragon. Now, don't go running away with the idea that Jude immediately swears revenge and valiantly goes forth to slay the worm. Actually, Jude spends most of the book struggling with his terror, grief, and self-hatred, while also learning to love a beautiful woman from a faraway land.

Jing-Wei, lately known as Lizzie Little-foot, is a daughter of Chinese nobility who was shipwrecked on an English shore. Brought up by gypsies and later kept in a cage as a freak for a traveling show, her plight touches a place in Jude's heart...or perhaps it's just that she reminds him of his dead sister. Together with an ancient crone who may or may not be a witch, Jing-Wei teaches Jude to find the courage within himself to face the dragon that killed his family, and more importantly, to slay the dragon within himself. She teaches him that knowledge is strength, that fear is having faith in your enemy, and that true love is its own kind of courage. And she shows him a very novel method of destroying a very nasty beast.

Part love story, part gripping adventure, part meditation on the role of women in medieval China and of minorities in medieval England, part amazing fantasy that combines history and fantasy with astounding ease, this is a dragonslayer tale of rare simplicity and effortless beauty. I think most who read it will enjoy it; some, indeed, will treasure it.

The Raging Quiet
by Sherryl Jordan
Recommended Age: 15+

The New Zealand-based author of The Hunting of the Last Dragon has created a medieval fantasy about a young woman who discovers that "being different" can be the unforgivable sin.

After only two miserable days of marriage to the middle son of her parents' feudal landlord, Marnie Isherwood becomes a widow in a tiny, unkempt cottage near a strange, unfriendly village. Her only friends are the village priest and the local "mad boy," whose name Marnie changes from Raver to Raven. Soon Marnie realizes that Raven is deaf, not mad. She invents a language of hand-signs to communicate with him, penetrating his world of anguish and confusion, and showing him compassion where he has only known cruelty.

But the local people don't take kindly to Marnie. For a variety of stupid, superstitious reasons - not least of which is the malice of a brother-in-law who wants to evict her from the cottage - Marnie is branded as a witch. And her sign-language with Raven is interpreted as some kind of spell-weaving. The result is a drama of gripping intensity, combined with a gentle love story, a low-key mystery, and an exploration of the unexpected ways in which good and evil manifest themselves.

If I have one bone to pick with this novel, it is that Marnie's self-possessed nature - which makes her such a wonderful character - is out of step with the age in which her tale is set. But according to the author's note at the end of the story, the characters of Marnie and Raven are what made the story happen, and the choice of a fantasy-medieval setting came later, because it almost seemed a shame to spoil the purity of the story with extraneous historical details. Maybe this is an insight into how some of the best fantasy stories are written.

D. W. J., part 3

Archer's Goon
by Dianne Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

From the same fertile imagination that brought us The Time of the Ghost, The Ogre Downstairs, and Witch's Business comes this deliciously weird, madcap modern fantasy about a town run by a squabbling family of seven wizards. One "farms" power, another law enforcement, still another.crime; a third farms entertainment, a fourth sanitation, a fifth education, and so on. "Farm" here apparently means that each wizard has power over a particular area, and profits from it as well. It was an arrangement made long ago, only something has gone wrong.

Some of the siblings want to spread out and take over the world... but they find that they can't leave the city limits. This is because one member of the family - no one seems to know who - has connived against the others. It has something to do with a pudgy writer named Quentin Sykes, who for the past thirteen years has kept up a quarterly assignment of typing a two-thousand-word story and handing it over to a bank manager. Only no one, least of all Sykes, can say what his quarterly four pages of typewritten drivel is good for.

Then comes a day when one of Sykes' quarterly offerings goes astray. That day a seven-foot-tall, brawny, slightly daft Goon takes up residence in the Sykes home, filling the kitchen with his enormous legs, and claiming that Archer - the oldest of the wizard siblings-sent him to collect Mr. Sykes' quarterly two thousand. If that isn't enough, the other wizards who secretly run the town put in demands for two-thousand-word stories of their own. Not liking to be pushed around, and even less willing after he finds out that Archer wants to rule the world, Mr. Sykes puts his foot down.

So he and his family soon find out how inconvenient it can be when the seven wizards who run the town are upset with you. The Goon moves in to stay for an indefinite period. Public services and roads are disrupted. Police harrassment, criminal harrassment, musical harrassment, and a series of spectacular family rows ensue, as 13-year-old Howard and his younger sister, appropriately nicknamed Awful, try to solve the mystery of who has been taking their father's words and why.

I've gone about explaining this story backward. It really begins with Howard and Awful coming home to find the Goon in their kitchen, and unfolds irresistably from there. I just wanted to give you an idea of the clever, original idea behind this tale. Full of humor, family drama, romance, an intriguing mixture of magic and technology, a puzzling mystery, staggering surprises, and an ending that is equally astounding and hilarious, it also features a priceless character named Awful, who at one point says: "I'm going to be bad. I may scream. I feel it coming on."

Aunt Maria
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

I found this book at a super-sized, big-city bookstore several years ago...and didn’t buy it. I don’t know why I didn’t, but I’ve been kicking myself about it ever since. When I decided that I wanted to read Aunt Maria, I couldn’t find it anywhere. None of the bookstores I went to carried it. I ordered it repeatedly online, but the orders kept being cancelled because the supplier couldn’t find any copies of it. Even when I managed to lay hands on a used copy at an outlet bookstore, I was disappointed; 50 of the first 100 pages were missing.

I finally got a break – or maybe I finally made a break – when I ordered Aunt Maria through an online used-book broker. My copy arrived, fully intact, quite clean, and not even smelling of stale cigarette smoke. I was tickled. And my joy continued all the way through reading the book. While I wouldn’t quite say Diana Wynne Jones can do no wrong, she did right by this book.

Mig and her brother Chris have a terrible Aunt Maria. She is actually their father’s aunt by marriage, and now their father has gone and driven off a cliff so she really has no fair claim to them, but when Aunt Maria insists that they come to stay with her over the Easter holidays, Mig and Chris and their mother give in.

Aunt Maria is good at using guilt and shame to make people do things for her. Soon she has Mig’s mother serving her hand and foot, and with the aid of a bossy neighbor lady and a whole brood of “Mrs. Urs” (so many you can’t keep their names straight), she begins to sink her claws into Mig and Chris as well. They fight it, though, at first in small ways, and more and more as they begin to notice strange things going on in Aunt Maria’s town of Cranbury-on-Sea. Things like the orphanage full of clone-like children, and commuter train full of zombie-like husbands, and the car that looks just like the one Dad supposedly drove off a cliff.

The little signs and little rebellions escalate apace. Mig adopts a cat that looks eerily like the woman who used to wait on Aunt Maria, and befriends the ostracized, crippled old lady across the street. Chris communicates with a ghost that appears every night in his bedroom, and accepts a secret mission from the crippled old lady’s eccentric brother. They fight back against Aunt Maria’s increasing efforts to cast a magical net around them, until Chris gets himself turned into a wolf. With her mother completely under Aunt Maria’s spell, Mig finds herself alone, small, and vulnerable. Yet it is she who must put a stop to Aunt Maria’s wickedness.

Here is another of D.W.J.’s fine fantasy tales, full of wit and originality and a slightly off-color family many of us can identify with. It is one of those stories about how you can go to a place expecting a restful holiday and end up having the fight of a lifetime against a serious and powerful evil - without ever becoming quite as dark and hopeless as some of “those stories.” It is a story in which the unlikely monster is a helpless, teddy-bearlike old lady. It is a story you’ll want to stay up way past your bedtime to read, but it won’t leave you afraid to turn the light off when you’re done.

by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

The title is a play on words. People of a British persuasion use the word "dogsbody" as a term for an unregarded person who hangs around doing odd jobs and taking everyone's abuse. Sort of like the house-elves in Harry Potter, a character who does all the things no one else wants to do and doesn't get any credit for it.

The title is ironic because the story is about how Sirius, the personification of the Dog-Star, is condemned for a crime he didn't commit, and his sentence is to live a dog's life (literally) on Earth. Imprisoned in a dog's body, he is soon adopted by an unfortunate Irish girl named Kathleen who is, for want of a better word, a dogsbody to the family that has taken her in.

Sirius the dog is Kathleen's only solace. Her personal family drama comes to a climax at the same time as Sirius' search for the celestial weapon, fallen to earth, which alone can clear his name...or, if it falls into the wrong hands, could destroy the whole world. Befriended by various people, cats, dogs, and forces of nature, but pursued by enemies of terrific nastiness, Sirius also has to work out whether he wants to be Kathleen's faithful dog, or to save the world and restore himself to his cosmic sphere.

You know, there's simply no way to summarize this story without making it sound totally loopy and/or giving away the whole thing. Take my word for it, it's a beautiful story full of love, sorrow, intrigue, and spine-tingling suspense. Though it also has a bit of sci-fi strangeness to it, its charming observations of dog and cat behavior are worth it. It's simply a page-turner.

Though this book doesn't have any Greek letters in it, like The Ogre Downstairs, it does have a lot of imagination as it portrays a variety of characters, from animal to superhuman and everything in between. It also tells a very unusual kind of love story. And it has that very special kind of ending, rare and treasured, which is at the same time a conventionally happy ending and breathtakingly sad. You really have to read it to believe it.

Eight Days of Luke
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

I liked this book, but I can't recommend it quite as highly as DWJ's other books.

The main character is an orphaned boarding-school boy named David who, like Harry Potter, doesn't look forward to his school holidays. For he is forced to spend them with his very nasty Great-Aunt Dot, Great-Uncle Bernard, Cousin Ronald and Ronald's wife Astrid. You know right on the spot that he's going to have a hellish holiday because when he arrives home, by train and bus, no one even pretends to be glad to see him. In fact, they seem very put out, pretending that they didn't expect him for another week, and blaming him for spoiling their own vacation plans.

David isn't allowed to go where he pleases, he is sniped at for outgrowing his old clothes, every penny he costs these people is begrudged, everything he does or every mess he makes is turned against him by a hateful serving woman who cooks nearly inedible meals and whose only joy in life, seemingly, is getting David in trouble. It's another nearly ridiculous, but mostly sad portrait of a decent kid growing up without love.

Finally, pushed too far, David decides to put a curse on his family, but he has to improvise at that, and what he ends up doing in fact, is letting a mysteriouis boy named Luke out of some kind of prison. Luke appears to be about David's age, but there's more to him than meets the eye. Full of mischief, with a seemingly magical ability to control fire, and a disturbing lack of conscience though he is charming, Luke looks like the sort of friend who promises to get David in trouble. He's not the invisible friend type of friend - others can see him, and everyone likes him - but he's just not normal.

Then even stranger people start showing up, one day after another: the burly & frightening Mr. Chew who sharply questions David about Luke's whereabouts; the smooth and charming Mr. Wedding who challenges David first to try to keep him from finding Luke, then to prove Luke's innocence; a merry sandy-haired fellow who seems to think Luke stole something from him; and a couple named the Fry's who have everyone under their spell, but who apparently want to send Luke back to prison for at least another thousand years. And we're talking the sort of prison where giant snakes drip venom on you and you have to catch the venom in a bowl to keep from being poisoned. To keep Luke from being sent back there, David has only a couple of days to find an object someone has stolen - but he can only find it as long as he doesn't know what it was, or who really stole it.

For the portrait of a boy being misused by his worthless relatives, I thought Eight Days of Luke was a good story. The rest of the story, though adventurous and strange and full of mystery and danger, ended up being a very thin allegory - not even that - of Norse gods like Thor and Woden. Basically silly and pointless, from my point of view. The most entertaining parts are where the two story-lines intertwine and impinge off each other. The fact that Norse gods are involved does add an otherworldly aspect to the adventure - like a mythic quest strangely woven into a modern family drama. It's an idea that might have worked better, or maybe it will work for you; but for reasons I cannot quite pin down, I wasn't really satisfied.

Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

This is a strange, complex, emotionally rich novel of mystery, fantasy, and horror, with an off-kilter love story to boot.

It begins when Polly, at age 19, realizes that she has two different sets of memories for five of the last nine years. One set is ordinary, full of school and friend and family stuff. The other set is a weird adventure with a cellist named Thomas Lynn, with whom she shares a make-believe game of being a trainee hero and his assistant. Only certain rich, powerful, nasty people dog their steps, determined to keep them apart. And then, four years ago, the hidden memories stop, and Tom Lynn disappears from her life, as a result of a stupid, wrong thing that Polly did but can't remember.

Much of the book dwells on those five exciting, dangerous years of hidden memories, and how Polly's relationship with the older Tom develops from a man and a girl escaping together from a tiresome funeral, to a pair hounded by the watchful Mr. Leroy and his sullen son Seb, plagued by disaster, and amazed to see their make-believe stories coming true.

Meanwhile, the changes and risks of growing up swirl around Polly - her broken home, her changing friendships and interests, and (what might be quite useful to a ravenous reader like you) the names of all the books that impact her life. But things come to such a pass that Polly makes a terrible choice, and her strange and wonderful friend Thomas Lynn is erased from her life and memories.

Only now, after four years of hum-drum, as Polly is about to go away to college, she digs back into her memories and recovers it all. At first it seems mad, and she has no idea what it might mean. But then it comes to her. And she has just enough time - perhaps - if she is strong enough - to save the man she loves from becoming another victim in a nine-year cycle of evil, enslavement, and death.

With depth of characterization and a canvas full of down-to-earth details, Ms. Jones creates a marvelous growing-up novel that also brings a blend of ancient ballads, myths, and fairy tales to life. You can learn a lot from this book, and it keeps you guessing and turning pages right up to the end.

The Homeward Bounders
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

This 1981 book is a far-out fantasy tale, but also an achingly sad, lonely story. The hero is a boy named Jamie, who inadvertently discovers that mysterious beings called Them are playing the ultimate war game, using earth (or rather, all the different parallel worlds it has divided into, by the various crises of history) as their game board, and real people as their pawns. When They catch Jamie making this discovery, They "discard" him to the Boundaries, where he moves from world to world in hope of someday finding his way back home.

Once again it is a plot that would require a lot of explanation to give you a fair idea of it, and if I did so, I would give away too much. But what it finally comes to, is that Jamie and a number of other "wild cards" join forces in trying to turn the tables on Them. The result is scary, exciting, strange, and sad, with some nicely portrayed friendships and a bit of romance.

It's a pretty ingenious idea, too, and more than a little chilling. Imagine that you are a pawn in a cosmic game of Risk, and that your whole world is just a little bit unreal. Not a pleasant thing to think about, eh? Hollywood has been playing with concepts like this, lately. (See The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and The Matrix, for example.)

So Jamie goes homeward-bounding with Helen - a religious initiate with a "gift" that some call a "deformity;" Joris-the enthusiastically loyal slave of Konstam Khan, the demon hunter; Adam - a bit of a nerd who wants to sell his sister Vanessa for sixty thousand pounds; and a number of other characters from myth and legend, such as the crew of the Flying Dutchman, the fabled Wandering Jew, and an unnamed figure who could be described as vaguely Promethean.

The idea crossed my mind, as I read this book, that you could turn the plot of it into a really sick, but awesome, practical joke. You could totally screw someone's mind up, if you could find two or three good actors who could improvise pretty well & were totally committed to their material. It would be soooo cruel. But funny!

The Ogre Downstairs
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

This is a delightful tale, full of charm and laugh-out-loud humor. Plus, the theme of a "blended family" resonates with the personal experience of many of us.

The Brants and the McIntyres are living under one very British roof, since Mrs. Brant (a widow) married Mr. McIntyre (a divorced, single Dad). But after only a couple months, things aren't going too smoothly. Sally, the mother of Caspar, Johnny, and Gwinny, was swept off her feet by Jack, father of Douglas and Malcolm. Only the kids weren't swept off their feet, either by their new stepparents or by their new stepsiblings.

Forced to share a crowded house with surly older brother Douglas and sneering twerp Malcolm, the Brant kids start calling their stepfather "the Ogre" because he is apallingly sensitive to noise, messes, and other things that happen when kids are around. He isn't even used to having his own sons around, since they were at boarding school until the family's new living arrangements put that out of his price range.

For their part, Douglas and Malcolm don't find it any easier to live with their father. Even they eventually start calling him "the Ogre." But they don't find it easy to make friends with their new siblings or mother. Douglas doesn't like change, and Malcolm doesn't know how to make friends. Malcolm, as it turns out, is also very lonely at his new school, where even Casper and Johnny won't have anything to do with him.

Sally, the mother, tries and tries, but the feuding kids are an escalating nightmare, and their feud with the Ogre is even worse. The catalyst that really lights the fuse to this family timebomb is the identical chemistry sets Jack gives to both sets of children.

These aren't ordinary chemistry sets. They come from a shop that has something magical about it, and a shopkeeper with a slightly malicious sense of fun. What follows is a magical "arms race" between the boys' bedrooms on opposite sides of the hallway. Naturally, every magical potion the boys cook up causes hilarious disasters that infuriate the Ogre more and more.

You will split a gut laughing! The kids discover potions enabling them to fly, bring inanimate objects to life, turn invisible, switch bodies, shrink down to tiny size, and cause Hell's Angels bikers to sprout from the ground. The final surprise reminds one of Harry Potter.

And naturally, all these magical powers cause things to go terribly wrong. The Ogre flies into escalating fits of rage. And, ironically, the five kids bond together as a result. The final challenge is to learn to understand the Ogre, and for him to learn to try to understand them, in time to save his marriage to Sally and/or keep the kids from being farmed out to boarding schools all over the country.

It's delightful seeing how nearly this family totally explodes & how wonderfully it finally comes together, especially considering how interesting each of the characters is.

The imagery of the book is delightful. Picture a teenage boy swimming down the street, a couple of stories above the ground, wearing an anorak and flippers. Picture a bathtub overflowing and causing an avalanche of water on top of an important dinner party. Picture boys wrestling with live, lizard-like, overgrown candy bars, and a man attempting to smoke a pipe without realizing that it has come to life. And if you know your Greek alphabet, you'll get extra enjoyment from the bit with the Biker Gang, because the children don't understand what they're saying and guess that they're talking in Greek. If you read the letters carefully you can figure out most of what they're saying (hint, it's NOT Greek).

Power of Three
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

Things come in threes in this book. Three Powers - the Old, Middle, and New. Three Peoples who live on the moor - the People of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth. Three children of the "sun people" chief Gest and his wise-woman wife Adara: by name, Ayna, Ceri, and Gair. And that's just for starters.

Though his brother and sister have powerful gifts, Gair believes he is completely ordinary. This fosters a solitary, thoughtful streak in his personality, a touch of melancholy, and a lack of understanding between him and his father. But Gair is actually extraordinary, in three ways in particular. I wouldn't dream of giving them away. But as one event follows another, Gair finds a kindred spirit among each of the other two Peoples- - making another circle of three.

I have to back up a little. I can't help it. This story is simply too rich and its weaving too sophisticated to break down into an easy summary. But imagine that there are three races that live on the same moor in mutual distrust and even, at times, violent enmity. There are Gair's people, who think of themselves as "people" but are known to the others as Lymen. There are Hafny's people, who also think of themselves as "people," but are known to the lymen as Dorig. And then there are the Giants, who also think of themselves as "people," and don't seem to know the other two exist. It may be a surprise, but not a big surprise, when you find out who the Giants are.

Each race has its own magic and its own way of life. Each seems to think it is the only civilized people with a right to live there. And all three are endangered by their own ignorance, pride, and distrust of the others.

The three Peoples can't seem to work things out and live together in peace. And this is sad, because all three of them live under a terrible threat. I'm not just talking about the plans to flood the moor and turn it into a reservoir. I'm talking about the golden collar, pulsating with an evil curse, that is poisoning the livelihood and relationships of all three peoples. And nothing short of the gifts of Gair and his brother and sister, and the chance of sworn enemies learning to work together, can end the curse and save the moor. Nothing, except, perhaps, an awful sacrifice.

I think you will enjoy this exciting, suspenseful story. It is filled with deep magic and a message of understanding and cooperation between cultures. It is also filled with the colorful details of strange and hidden ways of life, beautiful characters, and the sinister menace of a horseshoe-shaped piece of finely wrought gold. Evil comes in unexpected shapes, just as heroism comes in all kinds of packages. Enlarging to the mind, touching to the heart, this is a story to share.

Stopping for a Spell
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

Here are three light-hearted tales of magic from one of my favorite authors. Since each story consists of several chapters, they could be called “novellettes” - but the three of them together make a pretty slim book, so let’s just call them tales.

The first one is “Chair Person,” a cautionary tale about leaving the TV on in front of an empty chair, talking about burning a piece of furniture while in its presence, and letting bossy busybodies stage-manage your life. A bit of unplanned magic brings a crummy old armchair to life. Chair Person is a non-stop talker with a bottomless appetite and a mean streak. In just 24 hours he turns Simon and Marcia’s life upside down. The children race against time to reverse the spell that created Chair Person, before the chaotic magic destoys their family and their home.

The second tale is “The Four Grannies,” featuring a little boy named Erg who has a mother, a stepfather, a stepsister, and thereby four nightmarish grandmothers. Known by number rather than by name, Grannies One through Four become a real problem when they all show up at the same time to babysit Erg and Emily. All Erg wants to do is work on his invention, made of items found lying around the house and (wouldn’t you know it) a magic wand. Erg calls his invention a “prayer machine” even before he discovers that it actually does answer prayer... but not in a predictable way. While Erg tries to keep the Grannies busy long enough to finish his invention, really disturbing things start to happen – including the creation of the terrible Supergranny.

The book concludes with “Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?” Candida and her two brothers want nothing more than to get rid of Angus Flint, a really obnoxious, freeloading “friend of the family” who seems to have moved in for good. The creep pulls kids’ hair, insults their mother’s cooking, bosses everyone around, and practices yoga when anyone tries to talk to him seriously. His fatal mistake? Abusing the furniture. Beds, chairs, tables, and pianos will only take so much abuse before they get resentful. And trust me, you don’t want resentful furniture to suddenly awaken...

The stories in this book fulfill some of our basic fantasies. They show us ordinary people like ourselves, who have everday problems. We wish we could do something magical to make those problems go away. But of course we would realize, if we thought about it seriously, that once that kind of magic was turned loose, we would have a whole new set of problems, and then we would need to find a way to get rid of the magic. That’s what happens in this book. Diana Wynne Jones has the audacity, the creativity, and the sheer sense of fun to think our casual wishes through to their logical conclusion – and to turn them into hilarious, exciting, and weird stories like these.

A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

The heroine of this story is an eleven-year-old British girl from the year 1939, who, while being evacuated by train from the bombing of London, is kidnapped (gas mask and all) by a couple of boys from the timeless city of Time City.

Time City sits astride history, accepting students from all the "stable eras" and trying to keep the Unstable Eras (like ours) from getting too unstable. Now something is going wrong; something is causing history to go kerflooey all over the place; and the boys have overheard from their important Time City fathers that a girl named Vivian Smith has something to do with it. Which is why they've kidnapped Vivian and brought her home with them. They think she's the wife in the couple of city founders who are supposed to return and save the city as it comes to the end of another lap around history.

But Vivian is just a normal 1939 girl, who has no knowledge of Time City affairs, so the boys pretend she's their cousin Vivian Lee whose parents are observers stationed in the 20th century, and that she has been sent back to Time City for safety reasons while the century undergoes violent changes. Meanwhile they keep trying to catch whoever it is that is stealing the "polarities of time" that are hidden in special places throughout history and guarded by spectral guardians.

In the end it's not entirely clear whether the kids have been saving history or destroying it (though not on purpose), but they definitely end up playing a role in saving Time City. The ending of the story is surprisingly unlike the usual "heroes decorated by royalty in a ticker-tape parade" ending-they end up on trial! But what happens in between is so full of intrigue, suspense, surprise, and charm that I predict you would enjoy it anyway.

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

In a strange, magical mystery that will keep you guessing (and on the edge of your seat) till the very end, the author of many of my favorite books introduces us to four sisters — Cart, Sally, Imogen, and Fenella — who live a life of acute neglect in the house adjacent to an English boys’ school. Their parents give all their time to the boys and none to the girls—nor any money, and how the girls must scrounge even for food and clothing is amazing.

But while the girls live in their pigsty of a house, bickering amongst themselves & inventing the worship of a pretend goddess named Monigan & befriending a few of the schoolboys on the sly, weird things are going on. For Monigan, it turns out, is real...and a wrong-headed boy, bent on doing mischief, and a rebellious girl, bent on getting attention for herself, set a horrible chain of events in motion...and through it all, the ghost of one of the sisters, thrown back from seven years in the future, tries to find out which of the sisters she is, and how she can change the past before Monigan claims the life she has been promised.

I was fascinated by the children, revolted by the adults, and moved by the ghost’s, er, soul-searching in this tale. But most of all, I was entertained by yet another unique fantasy world created by a master storyteller.

Occult content advisory: some very foolish children perform some sort-of-pagan rituals, mostly in play, and for the most part they suffer consequences illustrative of how dangerous it is to meddle with things one doesn’t understand. I wouldn’t be surpised, though, if some of you took issue with this book’s use of religious and irreligious rituals. Forewarned is forearmed.

Witch's Business
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

In what seems to be Diana Wynne Jones' first novel, the trouble starts when Frank and his sister Jess have their allowance stopped for four months. What choice do they have, but to go into business for themselves? And the business they go into is the Revenge Business, or in the British tongue, "Own Back Ltd."

They don't end up making any money at it, but they get into lots of trouble. First the town bully hires them to get a "tooth for a tooth." Then two little girls hire Frank and Jess to do something about the local witch, Biddy Ironmonger, who has put the evil eye on one of the sisters. Then a boy from the "big house" demands help shaking off the same little girls, who have been persecuting him because his family took over their house when all their money and valuables "went."

Pretty soon things get even more tangled. The tooth ends up being used to put a curse on the wrong person. Nine boys sell themselves to evil, and will do anything to stop Frank and Jess and their new friends from finding the lost heirlooms that will restore a family's fallen fortunes. A "desprit" little boy hires Frank and Jess to free his older brothers who are part of the sold-to-evil gang. And between adults who are under Biddy's control, and the watchful eye of Biddy's cat, and other hazards of searching for lost treasure around a crumbling house while an evil witch is throwing curses around, the plot thickens and thickens.

Finally, when fifteen desprit (sic) kids take the battle to the witch's own turf, it's soup. A stew, really, of scary magic, fairy-tale whimsy, the high spirits of children, and a bit of Ms. Jones' trademark slipping-between-dimensions. Loaded with characters who become unlikely friends, and a witch who seems the likeliest enemy of all, Witch's Business will charm your socks off (in one sense of the word or another).

D. W. J., part 2

For decades, Diana Wynne Jones has thrilled every age group from "young readers" to adult with her fantasy stories. The worlds she has created are many and varied, and filled with a mind-boggling richness of imagination. But they are also filled with personal warmth, with characters you can relate to, and situations that run the emotional gamut from funny to heartbreaking, from mysterious to terrifying.

Her specialty, it seems, is magic. Her best stories, I think, include some kind of magic, usually a kind that fans of Harry Potter will immediately understand and embrace. Of course her imagination takes her in different directions, and she develops her ideas in her own special way.

Besides her many stand-alone books you will find reviewed in the next post, you may be especially interested in her several series or quartets (some of which are reviewed below), especially if you like "sets" like the Harry Potter books. These include the Dalemark Quartet and the Chrestomanci Chronicles (see previous post).

NOTE: when searching shelves that are arranged alphabetically by author, you will find D. W. J. in the "J" section, under "Jones." In case you wondered.

Howl's Moving Castle
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

Inspired, according to the dedication page, by an idea a child suggested to her when she was visiting a school, this terrific story is the first of a two-book series which continues in Castle in the Air.

It takes place in the magical land of Ingaria, where there are wizards, witches, handsome princes, seven-league boots, and so on. It turns all the fairy tale conventions upside-down, however. For instance, of three pretty daughters of a not-very-well-off hat maker, the oldest (Sophie) believes any attempt on her part to "seek her own fortune" is doomed to failure, by the laws of the world she lives in. But she does not seem to notice the powerful gift that she has, of talking life into inanimate things (like the hats she trims, to begin with). In a way she doesn't even realize, she is a powerful sorceress. And it takes a full-on curse from the wickedest, powerfullest sorceress in the world - the Witch of the Waste - to send her on her way to destiny.

Sophie's destiny involves being turned into a 90-year-old woman, insinuating herself into the moving castle of the notorious wizard Howl as a cleaning woman, and making a bargain with the fire demon who lives in Howl's fireplace. Her side of the bargain is to break the contract between the demon (Calcifer) and the wizard, which is bound to turn out badly for both of them if someone doesn't break it. The problem is, she has to figure out for herself what the contract is. Calcifer's side of the bargain is to return Sophie to her former young, pretty shape.

In the meantime, the Horrible Howl turns out not to be the awful creature of evil she imagined. In fact, he's a vain young dandy who spends most of his time wooing women, then dropping them like blown dandelions the instant they fall in love with him. Most of his magic seems to be done by Calcifer and, when it comes to everyday work that keeps the cash flowing, a teenaged apprentice named Michael Fisher. This sort of bent magical family, then, lives together in a two bedroom, one bathroom house whose door, depending on which way the four-colored doorknob is facing, opens out onto four different places: a street in the posh capital city, another street in a seaside village, a moving castle that floats around the hills outside the quaint little town Sophie comes from, and another place that comes as rather a surprise.

As Sophie becomes more of a fixture in the wizard's castle, she becomes more and more involved in his feud with the Witch of the Waste. Part of which curse involves an imaginative use of an actual John Donne poem. Sophie also grows more and more irritated with Howl's philandering ways. Oddly, she accepts being an old lady, sooner than she accepts the difficult and powerful role she has to play in the events that explode around her.

It's another story I don't want to say too much about, because part of the enjoyment is being surprised now and then. It's a fascinating yarn, full of fairy-tale magic, action and adventure, romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Most of all, it is very, very funny. And there's some intriguing mystery in it too, as bits and pieces of the Donne curse unfold, and the final confrontation between good and evil draws near. There's also some good suspense, because it's never quite clear whether Howl is going to end up on the side of good or evil, and on that hangs the happiness, not to mention the lives, of several people.

I think Howl is a wonderful character, and the way true love sneaks up on some people is very entertaining too! Plus, who can say no to a story that contains a scarecrow come to life, a man turned into a dog, a talking horse, a drunk scene, and chapter titles such as "In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime," "In which Sophie blackens Howl's name," and "In which a Royal Wizard catches cold."

Castle in the Air
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The sequel to Howl's Moving Castle is, again, a funny, romantic adventure. You won't be disappointed if you were hoping to see Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, and other favorites from the first book again. But be warned, all is not as it seems, and their entrances into the story line may surprise you.

It begins in the far away land of Zanzib, which is like what they used to call the Orient - a 1001 Arabian Nights kind of place. The hero is a handsome young carpet merchant named Abdullah who daydreams that he was born a prince, was kidnapped, and was raised by the carpet merchant who, in real life, was his father. He also daydreams, among other things, that he falls in love with the most beautiful princess in the world.

One day a mysterious man sells him a magic carpet and the next thing he knows, all his dreams - good and bad - are coming true. And then some. For just when the lovely princess Flower-in-the-Night is about to elope with him, she is abducted by a giant winged djinn right before Abdullah's horrified eyes.

Abdullah, partly to escape Flower-in-the-Night's furious Sultan father and partly to rescue the love of his life, flees from Zanzib and gets tangled up with a genie in a bottle. (I had always thought djinns and genies were the same thing. Shows how much I know.)

What with one thing and another, Abdullah finds himself in the magical land of Ingary, traveling with a scoundrel of a soldier, two cats, a cowardly genie, and a flying carpet that likes to be flattered. And then he goes to visit the Royal Wizard and the excrement really hits the air circulation device.

Once again the happiness of several couples, and the fate of more than one powerful magical being, hinges on what Abdullah does in a castle on a cloud, full of kidnapped princesses, guarded by 200 "angels of the lower air," and controlled by not one but two wicked djinns. With the same old magic and a lot of new magic too, it's more fun for anyone who loved Howl's Moving Castle - including me.

Deep Secret
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 16+

Here's a book that tells an interesting story about how it was written, in addition to the story it tells on the surface. A lot of the magical Sci Fi-Fantasy adventure takes place at a convention for fans, writers, and publishers of Sci Fi and Fantasy. Particularly Fantasy, actually. And in passing it gives you glimpses of writers' minds at work, or at least, writers talking about what they do.

Deep Secret is a big, complicated, involving story - probably best read by an adult - which, like so many of Jones's books, is hard to describe without giving away too much. Most of it is narrated by one Rupert Venables, who by day is a finicky, well-heeled, very proper-British designer of computer games, and who by night (to oversimply a bit) is a Magid, which means... well, you spend half the book finding out what it means, actually.

In short, he is a sort of civil servant, under strict rules and orders from a shadowy "Upper Room," who uses influence and (usually subtle) magic to make sure history stays on its proper course in the worlds under his jurisdiction. Magids are doing the same stuff on an infinite number of worlds, which are sort of like parallel-dimension Earths, only Magids can walk between them if they're very careful. Rupert's department is Earth and the neighboring Koryfonic Empire, which is having a major succession crisis and is tottering on the brink of civil war.

Rupert is the most junior Magid of all, which is why he's stuck with this undesirable assignment, and just as all Hades breaks loose his Magid mentor, Stan, dies and, again as the most junior Magid, it falls to Rupert to find someone to fill the vacancy. What with one thing and another, he ends up pulling the fate-lines of his five candidates so they all end up together at PhantasmaCon, the Fantasy fiction writers/fans/publishers convention.

What follows is a week of pure chaos, in which (as Rupert admits at the end) he makes every mistake that he could possibly make, and probably invents some new ones. Plus the fate-lines he has so expertly drawn together, besides being attached to some really obnoxious people, get tangled up with several other people's who, to his knowledge, should not be involved at all. The result is a scary, dangerous, heart-pounding, romantic, and often very weird chase between several dimensions to save not only the throne of Koryfos, but also several innocent people's lives. The climax is a couple of dramatic magical duels which, in my opinion, confirm Jones as a wizard at creating climactic wizard duels. (For more evidence, see The Magicians of Caprona.)

Besides, you can get emotionally involved with her characters, and their adventures can leave you breathless from suspense and excitement. And she always seems to invent a world with totally unheard-of rules that you come to accept and believe in and understand as the story goes on. I like the way Deep Secret doesn't stop in its tracks and patiently explain things to you, it sort of assumes you understand certain things and carries on while you pick up what you need to know along the way. I guess it's the kind of book that assumes the reader is intelligent, open-minded, and patient enough to wait and find out. But the reward for the extra effort is that you get to enter a fictional world that is so much more realistic for not having improbable signposts conveniently set along the way. I wish I could write stuff like that.

The Merlin Conspiracy
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

Don’t let the title fool you. This story is not set in the age of chivalry. It’s a modern-times, parallel-worlds fantasy, and a sequel (of sorts) to Deep Secret. At least, one of its two narrators will be familiar to those who have read Deep Secret, as will the whole idea of Magids policing the magical boundaries of the multiverse.

Nick Mallory is from Earth but not of Earth. Descended from a line of Emperors in a far distant world, he has abdicated his claim to the throne and lives a quiet life with his “Dad” (actually, his stepfather) who writes fantasy stories. Dad is a fan of a mystery writer named Maxwell Hyde, who is about to give the keynote speech at a mystery writers’ conference—another thing that should remind you of Deep Secret. Only poor Nick, who would really like to be able to visit parallel worlds and learn magic, doesn’t see much of this conference. He is just starting to enjoy himself when he is suddenly whisked to another world and plunged into a whirlwind of magic, intrigue, and danger.

Roddy Hyde is not of or from Earth, but from a parallel world called Blest. Her world, and in particular her version of the British Isles (known as the Isles of Blest), are the balance-point of all the magic in a hundred worlds. And a dreadful conspiracy is afoot to throw that balance off. Only Roddy and her magically-dyslexic friend Grundo know about the conspiracy (besides the people who are in on it), and no one will believe them until... gulp... until it’s too late.

Oh, and by the way, Maxwell Hyde (the mystery writer) is also Roddy’s grandfather (the Magid). So obviously, Nick’s and Roddy’s adventures collide together. Throw in a twisted world where Prayermasters weave spells of religious fanaticism to enslave a miserable populace... an elephant lost in the dark paths between the worlds... a pair of adolescent murderers... a fiendish trade in illegally-imported salamanders... a world-hopping goat... a multitude of magical creatures ranging from the genius of Salisbury to the Welsh Lord of the Dead... a royal court that eternally rolls around the countryside in buses... the most annoying pair of twins in history... and a magical “free operative” who uses his power, greater than that of 20 Magids put together, mostly to avoid his ex-wife... and you have a fantasy story that jumps with brilliant imagery, delicious humor, complex characters, and scintillating magic.

Plus, it has dragons.

Cha-ching! Do I have a sale?

Dark Lord of Derkholm
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

Anyone who enjoys reading thick, meaty Harry Potter books, like The Goblet of Fire or The Order of the Phoenix, should be gratified to know that Diana Wynne Jones has also written a pair of thick, meaty fantasy stories. The first and longer of the two is Dark Lord of Derkholm, and the sequel is Year of the Griffin.

The first story puts a new twist on the classic fantasy adventure. You know, the kind of story where people travel on horse and foot; are attacked by bandits, pirates, winged monsters, ghostly huntsmen, dark elves, fanatical priests, and enemy armies; are put under the spell of a glamorous enchantress; have gods and demons appear to them; learn clues for how to complete their quest from dragons; and finally confront, and defeat, a terrible Dark Lord.

Now suppose that this whole fantasy adventure is a sham put on for vacationing tourists from another world (a world pretty much like ours), where a very stern businessman named Mr. Chesney has somehow got this whole alternate-world of wizards, dragons, priests, bards, and so on, under his thumb. He ruthlessly exploits them and forces them to host these tours, at a great cost in lives, crops, and natural resources, which he very stingily repays, after levying dreadful fines whenever something goes wrong.

Meanwhile, the same little, neat-as-a-pin, smartly dressed, bald man - seemingly the farthest thing from a hideous villain - is also making money on the side selling sham insurance policies to the tourists (Pilgrim Parties, he calls them), accepting blood money to rub out certain "expendable" tourists, taking tribute from the dwarves. AND, when the full extent of his perfidy is finally revealed, Mr. Chesney is also secretly stealing the magic which belongs to the fabric of this world, to use as fuel in his own world.

Basically, the real dark lord in this story is the natty little man in a pin-striped suit. Not exactly according to Fantasy convention, eh?

A different wizard is chosen each year (against his will) to play the role of the Dark Lord. No one wants to do it. No one wants to play any of the roles in this vast, deadly, appalling role-play game. But because of the mysterious power Mr. Chesney has over their world, no one even thinks about trying to put a stop to it. Until now.

Gathered in secrecy, a small group of world leaders decide to plan how to save their world from ecological and sociological disaster: to fend off Mr. Chesney and his Pilgrims. The inner circle goes to inquire of the White Oracle and the Black Oracle, as to what must be done. The White Oracle tells them to make the first person they see after coming out of the temple the Dark Lord for the coming season. The Black Oracle tells them to make the second person they see the wizard guide for the last of the season's 126 tours. Immediately on leaving the Black Oracle, they meet a father and son coming out of the White Oracle - Wizard Derk of Derkholm and his small-for-his-age, 14-year-old son Blade.

So that's settled, then. The year's Dark Lord is a not-very-highly-regarded wizard, who never did very well at the Wizard University and hasn't participated much in the magical community. Their last tour guide is to be a boy with some raw magical talent, but whose father is fighting to keep him from going to the University he hated so much.

Derk is infuriated to be chosen as Dark Lord. No one hates the tours more than he; he considers them a blight on his world and a disgrace to the wizard magic that has kowtowed to them his whole life. He hated the university because the magical establishment frowned on research and innovation, and instead emphasized practical magic that would come in useful for the tours.

Derk specializes in experimental bio-magic. He excels in magically engineering new creatures. He has flying pigs, flying and talking horses, super-intelligent geese, invisible cats, carnivorous sheep, miniature flying monkeys, intelligent dogs (born with wings that fall off when they are weaned), and friendly cows (bred for stupidity, because he originally wanted them as food for the other animals). He also has a green thumb, growing roasted-on-the-bush coffee beans, man-eating orchids, vinyl plants, bread plants, and heaven knows what else.

But the pride of his collection are five griffins - basically, giant eagles that have the hindquarters of lions and the intelligence of humans - whom he and his wife, Wizard Mara, consider to be their own children every bit as much as their two human children, Blade and the beautiful bard Shona. The griffins are warlike Kit, artistic Callette, gentle Don, gourmet-chef Lydda, and talkative Elda, the baby of the family.

So Derk, who specializes in life magic and isn't very powerful in conventional magical ways, is supposed to be the Dark Lord while Mara, who specializes in miniature universes, is supposed to be the Enchantress. You see the problem?

Derk has a matter of weeks to arrange loads of dark-side stuff for the tours, which he's ever so unwilling to do. Making matters worse, the people who went to the Oracles, including high wizard Querida, expect him to fail because of his limited powers; so thinking that he's going to end the tours by botching everything, they help things along by sabotaging him at every turn. Derk has to frantically rush all over the place, be umpteen places at once, keep zillions of different moving parts well oiled and in their proper place, AND deal with sabotage from within and Mr. Chesney's unreasonable demands from without.

Derk's army is made up of other-world criminals who are supposed to be under a spell to control their violent natures, but who will still rape, rob, and murder you as soon as look at you. Plus he is distracted by thinking that Mara is leaving him. With all this going on and only days to go before the tours begin, Derk tops it all off by being burned nearly to death by an ancient dragon that has just awoken from a 300-year slumber and is angry because it doesn't understand what's going on.

So while Derk is recovering from his burns, the children take charge and the whole Dark Lord business becomes a family affair. The main part of this rather thick novel, then, is how Derk and his family work together to try to keep the tours, which they hate passionately, going smoothly...even though more and more things go wrong all the time. As I've said, people are sabotaging the tour thinking that they're helping Derk end the tours (and that includes his most trusted assistant). Meanwhile Derk's family is trying to keep the tours on track, thinking that if they fail, they personally and their world generally will be ruined.

But what no one reckoned on, was the double traitor in their midst, a betrayal so foul and dastardly that it completely disorganizes the pilgrim party Blade is supposed to guide, shatters Derk's family into heartbroken splinters, and results in the Dark Lord of the year sealing himself inside his estate (Derkholm) with his surviving children, refusing to take part in the tours and allowing a crowd of stranded pilgrims to gather outside his gates. This leads to a final and dreadful confrontation between the almost grief-maddened Derk, the unscrupulous Querida, a wrathful demon, an all-powerful god, an ancient dragon-king, the double traitor, an "expendable" pilgrim who has managed to survive, a thief lord, an elf prince, some very disgruntled tourists, and Mr. Chesney himself. Not to mention dwarves, griffins, wizards, kings, and young couples in love.

It's a very exciting novel, interesting also for the way it portrays relationships in a very complex family. It boasts some intensely gripping scenes, including a breathlessly scary one in which two brothers are forced to face each other as opponents in a gladiatorial contest to the death, knowing that if they don't fight they will both be killed. The romance in these two novels is of the unreal Shakespearean variety, where two young people lock eyes and fall in love at first sight. But otherwise it is a satisfying story, whose wry look at fantasy-adventure is full of humor, and whose many richly colored threads come together in a marvelous tapestry.

Year of the Griffin
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

This sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm is shorter and somewhat lighter than its predecessor. It's what the first year at Hogwarts might be like in Diana Wynne Jones' world. Instead of a wizard prep school, though, it's the Wizard University of which Querida is the high chancellor. But she is busy restoring their world to what it should be like after 8 years without the tours. And the older wizards, who were all in charge of things during the era of the tours, have retired. So the running of the university has fallen to younger wizards who were brought up through an educational system tailored toward the "practical magic user" demanded by the tours. Unfortunately, they are out of touch with magical theory and any sense of innovation or research in wizardry.

The University is also pretty hard up for money, which is what sets the plot rolling. For the chairman of the faculty, Wizard Corkoran (whose private ambition is to be the first man to walk on the moon) has decided to send a letter to the parents of all students, begging for donations so they can fix the roof, etc. For the six students in his first-year tutorial, however, this proves inconvenient.

One of them is Elda, the youngest of the griffin children of Derk and Mara; her father still disapproves of the university, and doesn't actually know she's there. The next is Lukin, son of King Luther of Luteria, a very poor northern kingdom that was ravaged by the tours, whose father also doesn't know he's at the University and doesn't want him to be a wizard. Then there's Olga, who is wanted by her pirate/gangster father for stealing part of his treasure. He also wants her to stay at home and help with the family business. And Felim, whose brother is a ruthless eastern Emir who has sworn to send assassins to kill him if he goes to the University. And Claudia, half-sister of the Emperor of the Southern Empire, whose brother Titus likes her well enough, while the Senate wants her dead; and Ruskin, a low-caste dwarf who has run away to study magic in order to help throw off the tyranny of the higher castes, who will also try to have him captured and executed.

Each of these students has a special gift, but some of their gifts are a little twisted by jinxes, including Lukin's tendency to inadvertently create deep pits, Claudia's trouble making any spell turn out right (and for a while, she is also followed around by a hat rack that is magically connected to her), Olga's trouble with causing horrible monsters to appear, and the fact that whenever Felim's life is in danger, he finds himself suddenly encased in a cocoon of books.

The trouble that breaks out because of the fundraising letters, unwisely sent to their families, is predictable yet also very entertaining. The six friends pull together to protect Felim from assassins and to save Olga from pirates. They work together to survive an attack by renegade griffins (no relation to Elda), they save Claudia from the Senators and Ruskin from the forgemasters, and when finally confronted by the armies of Luteria, the Empire, and the Emir, they manage (with a little outside help) to settle everything nicely. Most exciting, I think, is when their attempt to help Wizard Corkoran go to the moon turns into a hair-raising trip to Mars for Corkoran, all six friends, and Kit and Blade as well. Plus you can delight to a story so full of fun and outlandish adventure that it contains dialogue like this:
"It's only orange juice," he said. "Tell me who you are and what you think you're doing here, and I'll let you out."

"No," said the intruder. "My lips are sealed by oath. But you can't let me drown in orange juice. It is not a manly death."
Jones' ideas about magic are a little more developed than those of JK Rowling. There are gods, demons, pentagrams, and candles involved, so be advised in accordance with whatever you consider the line between acceptable fantasy and the occult. I still think it falls on the acceptable side, but there's a bit more room for debate on that than in the case of Harry Potter (which, IMHO, only bigots who haven't read the books would consider worthy of burning).

DWJ's Wizard University is also a bit more mature than Hogwarts, having a college-aged student body with all the drinking and romance and grown-up mischief that goes with it. The students' life isn't quite as regimented as that at Hogwarts, and they live more in the normal world (with a rowing crew, a university choir, table tennis, fencing team, etc. as extracurricular activities). And they don't take their teachers quite as seriously as Harry and his friends take their Hogwarts teachers.

The head teacher, Corkoran, is only a marginally better wizard than Gilderoy Lockhart. Wizard Wermacht, at the low end of the faculty pecking-order, is arrogant, pathetic, gloomy, and an incompetent fool; he is like a much less capable Professor Snape. Dried-up old Querida is a very powerful female wizard for the forces of good, but she really has no conscience; and sometimes her physical fragility seems more significant than her magical powers. When Wizard Finn isn't trying to steal away another man's wife, he seems to be fooling around with pretty female students. Wizard Myrna is sidelined by pregnancy, Wizard Dench (the bursar) has little time to think of anything except fund raising, and Wizard Umberto is so shy and quiet that no one really knows what he does.

The best teachers turn out to be Kit, Blade, a pile of out-of-circulation library books recommended by Derk, a griffin from overseas named Flury who shows up in the middle of the book, and a statue of the University's founder, Wizard Policant, which sometimes talks. (Kit and Blade, by the way, during the 8-year interval between the two stories, became two of the four most powerful wizards in the world.)

There are two further lessons to be learned from this book: (1) don't mess around with talking pigeons, and (2) don't take your anger out on innocent cows.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

In a brief but informative essay titled “How I Came to Write This Guidebook,” inside the back cover of The Tough Guide, D.W.J. admits that her inspiration came while she was helping to edit The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. The process of writing The Tough Guide served, in turn, as the inspiration for Dark Lord of Derkholm. A lifetime of experience in writing and reading fantasy fiction served her well as D.W.J. compiled this facetious travel guide to the world of fantasy, where the reader is invited to prepare for a “tour.”

Recognizing the similarities among even the best fantasy tales, to say nothing of their tiresome clichés, The Tough Guide starts by assuming that all fantasy novels take place in the same world. So all “tours” proceed through a limited number of routes and options. Then, factoring in all the things fantasy novels never mention, the Guide shows Fantasyland to be a very, very strange world. A world whose mysterious laws are only known, if at all, to “the Management” (fantasy authors?), though quite a lot can be deduced.

Brief, compact, well-organized, this is precisely the book you would need if you were going to be a “tourist” in Fantasyland. It tells you when to worry and not to worry, what to expect from the weather and the food, and how to pronounce a lot of silly “Pan-Celtic” jargon. Better still, The Tough Guide is a handy reference, explaining the types of magic, characters, creatures, and other things you can expect to find in a fantasy novel...or, if you wish to write one, the literary conventions you may wish either to keep or to break. Best of all, the book is a laugh-a-page spoof of a land you would only want to visit in your imagination.

D. W. J., part 1

Uff da. This could be the longest blog post ever. To prevent that, I'm going to break it up into digestible chunks, starting with...

The Chrestomanci Series
by Diana Wynne Jones

The Chrestomanci novels (1977 ff.) are set in a sort of parallel world where there isn't quite as much technological advancement as in ours. For instance, only the very rich drive automobiles, and no one has even heard of airplanes. There are also differences in history (the French won at Agincourt, and the King of England is called Charles VII - there were no Georges), as well as geography (America is called Atlantis and ruled by the Incas; Italy is still divided into independent duchies). There is a great deal more magic in this world than in ours, with wizards and necromancers and enchanters and sorcerers and warlocks and witches and all the rest - though not as much as in other worlds; it doesn't have elves or dragons or such like.

The common link between the four stories is the enchanter known as Chrestomanci, which is a title, rather than a name. Chrestomanci lives in a beautiful castle, and is employed by the government to protect the "multiverse" from the misuse of magic. Among the rare powers that fits him for his job, is that he possesses nine lives, because in the ninefold worlds of his particular chain of worlds, he has no parallel self as most people do. In the Chrestomanci books, this special enchanter is confronted with a variety of challenges to the magical status quo: such as an overambitious young witch, a feud between rival houses of spellmakers, a ring of magical smugglers, and an impossible world in which almost everyone is a witch but, at the same time, all witches are required by law to be burned.

Enjoy the books in any order. They are reviewed below in their order of publication.

Charmed Life
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

The hero of the first Chrestomanci novel is a very nice little boy named Cat, whose actual name is Eric Chant. He and his older sister Gwendolen are suddenly orphans, thanks to a horrendous steamboat accident that killed a lot of people. They survived because, as Cat has always known, his sister is a witch, and witches can't drown, and just as the boat sank he wrapped his arms around her and hung on.

At first they are cared for by a witch named Mrs. Sharp, who has minor criminal tendencies but is basically a loving soul, at least where Cat is concerned. Their needs are supplied by a trust fund set up by the kind townspeople. Then, after Gwendolen shows remarkable skill at magic while taking lessons from a neighboring necromancer (Mr. Nostrum), both children have their fortunes told. Cat didn't want to know his and can't make heads or tails of it anyway. Gwendolen, on the other hand, becomes convinced that her destiny is to rule the world, and writes a letter to Chrestomanci - an enchanter of awesome power and prestige - who takes both children to his castle and puts them in school with his own children, Roger and Julia.

Now to understand what happens, you have to realize that Gwendolen is a very ambitious young witch, and she is driven to desperation by Chrestomanci's determination to ignore her talents and to prevent her from studying magic. Cat, on the other hand, seems completely unmagical, just a nice little boy who clings to his big sister a bit too much. Gwendolen's frustration, the enmity of Julia and Roger, and the icy indifference of Chrestomanci, build to what I think is the turning point of the story, when Gwendolen does something so bad that she gets spanked with a boot, and Cat gets slapped about the face for not doing anything to stop her.

Then Gwendolen's magic powers are taken from her. Cat retires to his bed that night, Gwendolen's vows of revenge ringing in his ears... and when he wakes up the next morning, his sister has gone and a nearly identical girl named Jane, from another world (ours, maybe), has taken her place. Jane is as bewildered about this as Cat is. It seems Gwendolen's last revenge was to flee into another universe, causing her parallel selves to be similarly moved along in a sort of quantum chain reaction. Now Cat has to help Jane adjust to living in a world utterly strange to her, cover up the fact that she isn't Gwendolen, and cover up the fact that he can't do magic when Chrestomanci promises to start giving him magic lessons, all of which is hard enough without bearing the consequences of the things Gwendolen set in motion before she left.

Not till the end of the book do you fully realize just how ill Gwendolen has used her poor devoted brother. In fact, what Cat must go through is quite hearbreaking, until he fully has the measure of his sister.

Cat is a lovable character, and you can't help feeling an urgent interest in his destiny as he gets caught up in scarier and tougher adventures. Somehow I was reminded of one of Dickens' brave little waif heroes, like Paul Dombey or Oliver Twist - with a touch of Harry Potter. With lots of magic, humor, suspense, and adorable characters, his story is quite a page turner.

The Magicians of Caprona
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

In the second Chrestomanci novel, cats once again have a pivotal role. In the first book (Charmed Life) there was not only a character named Cat (and there were reasons for that), but also a real cat that ended up being very important. In this novel, a big, old, battle-scarred, mean cat, boss of the cats in the Casa Montana, is a major player in the plot.

Now suppose Italy is still made up of a bunch of city-states or duchies, and one of them is Caprona. And suppose Caprona is world-famous for the quality of the spells you can buy there, spells for any purpose from growing tomatoes to fighting wars. And suppose the two great spell-houses of the city are feuding families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. Each one thinks the other is scum, capable of the blackest evil. They are about evenly matched in terms of magical ability, and they are both called upon to defend their city when danger threatens. But they seem more interested in fighting each other than a common enemy. Sort of like Capulets and Montagues, only with spells.

Now suppose the leader of Casa Montana is Old Niccolo, and his oldest son Antonio is next in line to run the show. And suppose Antonio has three daughters and two sons, and the youngest of all is Tonino - who, in spite of being a voracious reader, is a very slow learner, both in school and in spells. But suppose that Tonino is the only person besides Old Niccolo who can talk to cats, and cats are important for a lot of spells. Moreover, the boss cat of the Montana compound (name of Benvenuto) prefers Tonino's company to Old Niccolo's or anyone else's. This makes slow, young Tonino quite important. Never mind that this is an Italian family - a HUGE Italian family - and they look out for their own, regardless.

War seems to be creeping up on Caprona. The neighboring states of Pisa, Siena, and Florence want to take turns taking bites out of Caprona until there is none left. The English archwizard Chrestomanci is concerned. The Duke seems to be a booby. Things are going downhill so fast that spells may not be able to save Caprona - and worst of all, the spells of Casa Montana and Casa Petrocchi seem to be losing strength.

Some say there's another enchanter abroad, interfering with Caprona's destiny. Most say that the only thing that can save Caprona is for the citizens to find out what were the original words to the song that, legend says, an angel gave them long ago, to defend the city. They have the music, but the words aren't quite right, and no one can remember the right ones. And while danger grows, the two Houses are duking it out in the streets.

The one-on-one duel between Antonio Montana and Guido Petrocchi is not to be missed! DWJ is indeed a master of inventing wizard duels!

Also, a couple of star-crossed lovers are trying to deceive both of their families. A couple of younger, not-so-star-crossed kids are trying to make both their families see the truth. And the most important children from both families - including Tonino and a bright Petrocchi girl whose spells never come out quite as planned - have been kidnapped by the evil enchanter who has been manipulating the whole situation from the very beginning. It doesn't look like she'll ever let them go alive.

The result is an adventure full of Punch and Judy puppets (that's a surprisingly scary part), flying iron griffins, children scaling the dome of a cathedral, cats trying to communicate with people, and grown men turning each other into giant tomatoes. And once again, the hero is a sweet, simple little boy who unexpectedly finds courage and power within himself. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Witch Week
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

The third Chrestomanci novel takes place in a different world from the first two, a world pretty much exactly like our modern world, except for two dangerously unbalanced facts: (1) almost everyone is a witch, and can't help being that way from about age 11 onward, and (2) witchcraft is punishable by death at the stake, and an inquisition goes around catching anyone who has been denounced as a witch, torturing confessions out of them, and burning them all the time. So basically, everyone lives in mortal fear, and it seems that most witch burnings happen because witches turn on each other to protect themselves. It's horrible.

Now the story takes place in a coëd boarding school where, in a certain 6th grade class, several students realize at about the same time that they are witches. What they do with the knowledge varies with their personality, life experiences, and position in the classroom's savage pecking order. But they are all in terrible danger. Finally things become so desperate that they end up summoning the debonair enchanter Chrestomanci out of his own world, where he diagnoses the root of the problem: their world should not even exist. It simply isn't possible. Something has to be done to restore reality to its correct parameters, but what it will take is the limits of Chrestomanci's powers, the cooperation of a group of 6th graders who hate each other's guts, and a big stroke of luck!

It's another suspenseful and magical story, full of humor and well-drawn characters, and featuring such high jinks as a magically enhanced game of Simon Says, a rain of shoes, a broomstick that behaves like a dog, and a breathtakingly funny scene in which a girl can't stop herself from commenting on the food, at gruesome length, during a formal luncheon.

You'll just have to do your own best to picture the five children who summon Chrestomanci - including a girl in jodhpurs, a hard cap, and a riding crop; a girl in a puffy pink dress with frills and ballet slippers; and two boys who have ridden cross-country on a hoe and a mop, wearing nothing but football cleats and the sort of "little blue gym shorts" they used to wear in the 1980's (they were skiving off P.E.). They must have been quite a sight, and it's no wonder they spend most of their time trying to hide behind each other.

I saw the solution to the story coming, but I liked it anyway, and I especially loved the scene in which "Simon Says" runs his mouth off in geography class. The different viewpoints of the students are interestingly captured, a couple of times, by showing their contrasting entries in a journal they are supposed to write in. And it's also clear that someone worked hard picking the historical figures that each of the students named in turn. One that almost slipped by me without being noticed was the mention of Galileo being executed, which didn't happen in our universe. And by the way, the title refers to the week between Halloween (Oct 31) and Bonfire Night a.k.a. Guy Fawkes Day (Nov 5), which is sort of like the British "fourth of July."

The Lives of Christopher Chant
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

The fourth novel in the Chrestomanci series was published several years after the first three books, but takes places about 25 years before the events in those books. It's basically about how the character we have come to know as the Chrestomanci became the Chrestomanci. (Chrestomanci, after all, is a title, not a name.)

It all started with a little boy named Christopher Chant, who was a disappointment to his family of powerful enchanters and sorceresses because he couldn't seem to do magic, until one of his uncles discovered that he could travel in spirit to other worlds (in his dreams) and return with solid objects from those worlds. In due course it also turns out that he has nine lives and that, when he has no pieces of silver on his person, he is actually a very powerful enchanter.

In fact, being a nine-lived enchanter is a rare gift that entitles him to be the Chrestomanci, or keeper of the world's magic. The current Chrestomanci is an old man named Gabriel de Witt who still has eight of his lives, and is understandably dismayed to see his heir apparent burning through one life after another in a ridiculously swift manner. Young Christopher's hopes of living to be Chrestomanci himself are hampered by a conspiracy to smuggle illegal magical products out of other worlds, a conspiracy in which Christopher unwittingly finds himself at the very center. And then there's the fact that he befriends the living avatar of a very vindictive goddess from another world. And nothing is helped by the fact that, after a single brief taste of happiness in a real school with real friends, Christopher is miserable and resentful about being shut up in Chrestomanci castle where there is no one his age and no one seems to have time for him.

As the manhunt for the wicked smuggler known as the Wraith draws to its climax, and the fate of both the present and future Chrestomanci's lives hang by a thread, and a deadly cruel sort of Elven King gets involved, the fact that Christopher is getting toward the end of his supply of lives begins to tell. The climax is fraught with danger, betrayal, redemption, and excitement.

The book ties up some threads that were left hanging at the end of Charmed Life, filling in details that surely every Chrestomanci fan would want to know. It gives glimpses of the parents of Cat and Gwendolen (long before there was a Cat or Gwendolen), it shows the beginning of the relationship between the great enchanter and his future wife, and it shows just how a lonely little boy evolves into the debonair man with the infuriatingly closed-off expression on his face. And though the Chrestomanci-to-be really is the main character in this story, you still see (as in the previous three books) an adventure in which the real hero is not the great enchanter but a child who is still learning to control his magical powers.

Conrad's Fate
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

This fifth book in the Chrestomanci series is finally in paperback, but before I talk about it, I feel a need to mention a movie based on a completely different book by Diana Wynne Jones. It's called Howl’s Moving Castle, and it was originally made in Japanese. The English-dubbed version features the voice talent of Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Lauren Bacall, and Billy Crystal. It takes some liberties with Jones’ wonderful book, and at times the animation is a bit pedestrian, but the scenery is gorgeous and it is still a phenomenal love story. Try it and see if you like it.

Now to the book, where we find Christopher Chant (who was a grown-up in the other books except The Lives of Christopher Chant) as a teenager, visiting a strange, not-quite-parallel world where Britain is attached to the continent of Europe, has alps, and is troubled by a Count who keeps “pulling the probabilities” (i.e., fiddling with reality) to keep his cash flow going. Among those who want to do something about it is a local boy named Conrad, who believes that he has bad karma from a previous life and that he needs to kill someone up at Stallery Mansion (where the Count lives) in order to expiate his evil fate.

Both Conrad and Christopher get taken on as valets-in-training at Stallery, though each of them has his own secret agenda. Nevertheless, the two lads become friendly rivals and try to help each other. Christopher’s problem has something to do with an interdimensional gateway that leads, at different times, to any one of several parallel worlds – and the girl he loves is stuck in one of them. Conrad’s problem – his real one, that is – turns out to be closer to home than he thought. But the changes in reality will become more frequent and disruptive, until the servants are all convinced that the mansion is haunted, and a houseful of guests is stunned by the sudden and truly unexpected explanation of the whole, complicated mystery.

Diana Wynne Jones has once again woven a remarkable mix of magic into one engaging and surprising tale. Fraught with supernatural menace, spiritual dread, romantic melodrama, sci-fi weirdness, and class politics, it is above all a quirky, teen-fantasy take on Gosford Park with its above- and below-stairs high-jinks, criminal mischief, and desperate loves above and below one’s station.

The Pinhoe Egg
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: Age: 12+

In the countryside all around Chrestomanci Castle lie villages crammed with "dwimmer" people - bush witches and wizards who take pains to keep the "big man" out of their business, and to protect their turf like so many feuding clans. But a long-standing, evil conspiracy has become frayed at the edges, and the simmering hostilities between the Farleighs and Pinhoes boil over into a magical war right under the Chrestomanci's nose.

And who would be at the center of all these goings-on, except the innocent but seriously powerful enchanter, Eric Chant, who lives under the Chrestomanci's protection; Marianne Pinhoe, adolescent heir to her clan's Gammer, who doesn't know her own power; and an egg, long sheltered under cobwebs and spells in Gammer Pinhoe's attic, now about to hatch and to break open a lot of secrets into the bargain.

Fans of The Chrestomanci Chronicles will be pleased by this book in which D.W.J. appears in full possession of her powers. Magical creature spotters will be tickled by the creature that comes out of the egg, and Arthur Weasley types will enjoy the wizard's perspective on how to invent a flying machine. With its multitude of quirky characters and their bizarre agendas, this book has plenty of fun for anyone.

Cart and Cwidder
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The Dalemark Quartet begins with this exciting, sad, scary, and endearing tale that weaves music and magic together. The setting is the imaginary kingdom of Dalemark, which has long been without a king and divided into earldoms. More than that, the earldoms of the north are divided from those in the south, both by a barrier of mountains and by political enmity.

Among the few who can cross between them are a flamboyant singer and storyteller named Clennen and his musically gifted family. They travel from north to south and back again, year after year, entertaining the townspeople along the way for a living, and also delivering messages and carrying passengers in their gaily painted, horse-drawn cart. Among the instruments they play is the lute-like cwidder... and Clennen's own cwidder seems to have been passed down from Osfameron himself, the immortal minstrel of the age of legend.

Clennen's wife is Lenina, the niece of a southern earl whose heart Clennen captured with his singing. They have three children: shy, creative Dagner, who writes interesting new songs; brassy, strong-willed Brid, who in her costume looks older than her thirteen years; and dreamy, eleven-year-old Moril, who observes more than most people realize from behind his sleepy-looking eyelids. As the story opens, they are traveling from the southern end of Dalemark toward the north, carrying news through the realms of the paranoid, tyrranical southern earls-- including news of a shipload of men from the free, merry northern lands, who were captured in the south.

Along the way they pick up a passenger - a sullen, "fed-up"-looking youth named Kialan, whose presence creates stresses within Clennen's family. But at that point, things start happening fast. Before Moril knows what's going on, his father has been murdered before his eyes, his mother has given herself in marriage to a southern lord, and he, Dagner, Brid, and Kialan are making their way northward in their cart, trying to eke out a living with only a fragment of their old ensemble.

Worse trouble is in store yet. Dagner gets arrested as a spy. Moril learns the surprising truth about his late father, and about Kiaran - who must get to the north, as the south is full of deadly danger to him. And the powerful cwidder of Osfameron has fallen to Moril, who must come to know himself truly before he can use its power. Meanwhile the three youngsters are pursued... hunted... captured...

The adventure is gripping. Moril's inward reflections are interesting. His family relationships are both heartbreaking and heartwarming. And the musical spells he weaves grow more and more magical, powerful, and thrilling. Here is a tale full of song, full of history, and full of imagination. I predict that if you read it, you will be hooked on the Dalemark series for the duration!

Drowned Ammet
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The second book of the Dalemark Quartet weaves together the life story of a "common as dirt" kid named Mitt (short for Alhammitt, the commonest name in the Southern earldom of Holand) with that of strong-willed, fierce-tempered Hildrida and her sweet brother Ynen, neglected grandchildren of Holand's cruel and despotic Earl Hadd. And by the end of the story, these children from such widely different backgrounds share a powerful destiny...

Mitt's story is rather sad. Born to laughing parents who were doing rather well as tenant farmers in the reclaimed lowlands near Holand, Hadd's punishing taxes and vindictive servants have driven them off their land and into a squalid waterfront tenement, where their lives become increasingly bitter. Mitt's father joins a revolutionary group and, after someone informs on them the night of a big sabotage operation, never returns. Mitt's mother squanders her own wages as well as some of her son's (he becomes a fisherman's apprentice) so that they can hardly get enough to eat. And together they plot revenge against the people who they believe betrayed Mitt's father to his death.

The result is that, when Earl Hadd parades down to the docks, carrying the effigy of wheat called Poor Old Ammet, to throw it into the harbor at the annual Autumn Sea Festival, Mitt is there with a disguise and a bomb. But Hadd's third son Navis steps forward and spoils Mitt's plans to avenge his father... and then, moments later, an unknown sharpshooter kills Hadd with a bullet! Suddenly finding himself on the run, confused and disillusioned, Mitt tries to hide in the hold of a yacht called Wind's Road.

But Wind's Road belongs to Navis' children, Hildy and Ynen. They have grown up in Hadd's palace, neglected by their cold and idle father (who is said to still be in mourning for their mother), and all too aware of the cruelty of their grandfather and their two uncles, Harl and Harchad. All the Earl's granddaughters, including Hildy, have been betrothed to other lords, by way of cementing political alliances. But the Earl has no use for his grandsons (like Ynen), and all Hildy and Ynen can get out of Navis is a pleasure boat for them to learn to sail in.

The day their grandfather is assassinated, Hildy and Ynen decide to rebel and run away for an illicit cruise on Wind's Road. They don't even realize that, in the wake of Hadd's death, the earl's three sons are fighting over the succession, and that their uncles would as soon kill them as the person who killed the old Earl. Nor do they realize that the boy who attempted to blow him up is armed and hiding on board.

What begins as a hostage situation, however, gradually turns into a friendship as the three children sail through a terrific storm, aided by the presence of a couple of "lucky" effigies that are actually connected to the forgotten gods of old. Then they rescue a man from a storm-tossed boat, a man who turns out to be their worst nightmare. How they survive him, and the people he works for, makes up the balance of this suspenseful, exciting tale.

Meanwhile, all three children do a lot of soul-searching, and they learn to understand each other - and themselves - enough to save Navis, do wonders with the help of the gods (informally known as Old Ammet and Libby Beer), and bring hope to the Holy Isles.

The Spellcoats
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The third book in the Dalemark Quartet takes us back to the prehistory of Dalemark, when narratives (and spells) were woven, not written. The weaver telling this tale is a girl named Tanaqui, who lives on the banks of a great river with her father, her older sister Robin, older brothers Gull and Hern, and her younger brother Mallard (usually called by his baby-name, Duck). The children are all dark-skinned and fair-haired, the very opposite of everyone else they know, and instead of worshiping the River like their neighbors, they believe in the Undying - of which three are in their home, in the form of stone or wooden effigies.

Now it comes about that a race of Heathens - dark-skinned and light-haired, like the children - are invading the land, and in the wars that follow, the children's father is killed and their oldest brother, Gull, comes back not quite right in the head. The Heathens have defeated them with the aid of powerful mages, and the river is acting funny, and disease is going around, and the villagers are blaming the children - whom they believe are in league with the Heathens, or else just plain bad luck. Finally, when a great flood comes down the river, the children escape in a boat just ahead of an angry mob seeking to kill them.

But their greatest dangers and adventures lie ahead, as Kankredin, the "mage of mages," is collecting souls looking for ones that can give him a direct line to the Undying - and thus, have the whole country under his evil power. And to begin with, he has a hold on Gull and is trying to steal his soul. The children flee frantically through a dangerous landscape, where their own people see them and think they are the enemy, and they themselves fear and hate the invading Heathens.

But they encounter a mysterious being named Tanamil... they get help from the Undying, who are (in an intriguing way) man-made idols, forces of nature, and people all at the same time... and they confront Kankredin and escape from his clutches... and the children learn about who their parents really are, and discover gifts they did not know they had... and they realize what must be done to stop Kankredin from destroying their whole world and enslaving everybody for all eternity.

It won't be easy, though. It means two enemy nations must unite against a common enemy. It means a great power, long bound and dormant, must be set free. And it means Tanaqui must come to terms with the magical power she weaves into the fabric of her own story - into the spellcoats.

This is a brilliantly imagined, exciting and powerful story, and a testimony to the multi-dimensioned detail of the world Ms. Jones has created. The Dalemark Quartet's themes of young people searching within themselves to understand their own amazing powers, and of the ancient Undying doing their part to help in the form of legends, charms, and household gods that come to life, is as fascinating as the deep sense of history, geography, and folklore that fill that fascinating, imaginary country.

The Spellcoats has the intimacy of a family drama, the sweeping power of an ancient epic, the gritty realism of an ancient tale of war, and the colorful vistas of a travel story up and down a great river, and a really cool depiction of mythic/fairy-tale magic. It builds and builds to a climax that is delayed until so close to the end, with such a minimum of "what comes afterward," that I doubt any book could equal it without leaving the ending unresolved. And all of it, apparently, fits in the weave of two intricately-worked spellcoats. Come on, wrap yourself up in it!

The Crown of Dalemark
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The fourth and longest book in the Dalemark Quartet brings together characters and plot threads from the first three books, along with a girl sent back in time from something like our present-day world. A pivotal point in Dalemark's history is at hand, and a lot of very powerful people are willing to do whatever it takes to make it turn they way they want it to... while a powerful immortal with a grudge tries to change the course of history.

Maewen is the modern girl, thrust into the role of Noreth - a young woman who believes the One, the greatest of the Undying, is her father, and that she is destined to be the Queen who restores the monarchy and unites her fragmented country. So Noreth rides off on the magical Green Road in search of the Gifts of Adon (a ring, a cup, and a sword) and the Crown of Dalemark. Or rather, Maewen rides, because something has mysteriously happened to Noreth, and a concerned immortal sends Maewen back 200 years to fill Noreth's place.

So Maewen begins her impostor's journey surrounded by people she knows, at best, as ancient historical figures - people she barely understands, and she does not know who to trust. There is the red-headed singer Moril (see Cart and Cwidder) and his schoolmasterish colleague Hestefan, the one bitterly hating anyone and anything to do with the South, the other nursing grudges of his own. There is southern refugee and ex-criminal Mitt (see Drowned Ammett), who is disillusioned with the north, now that a northern Earl is blackmailing him to murder Noreth (I mean, Maewen). There is Navis, another southern refugee, son of the late and nasty Earl Hadd of Holand, who is always hard to read and who has his own loyalties and agenda. And there is Wend, the Undying who (in the future) sent Maewen into the past, but who seems as mysterious as the mystery he is trying to solve.

Together this group travels the royal road toward the ruins of the once-and-future royal city, stopping for perilous adventures along the way as they find the Adon's Gifts, build a larger following, establish relationships of love, friendship, and trust, and put the proper crown on the proper head in the middle of a climactic battle. But even that isn't the end, for a last confrontation with the evil mage Kankredin (see The Spellcoats) is in store for Maewen's time in history...

This is the deepest, most intricately detailed, and most exciting of the Dalemark books, and that's saying a lot. It is full of intrigue, betrayal, mystery, and horror, not to mention powerful magic, divine intervention, friendship, romance, humor, heartbreak, adventure, prophecies fulfilled, and a gelding horse named Countess, who bites. It has a love story that spans centuries, and a plot that weaves together characters from Dalemark's past, present, and future. It also has a huge glossary of the terms, people, and places of the Quartet, including some things that you may have had to guess at in previous books (and also, showing how thoroughly Ms. Jones prepared before writing this monumental series).

But most importantly, it is an entertaining book, beautifully written, like most of the author's books that I have read. Here's a sentence that stuck in my mind: "He was like a candle seen through tears." It's just neat stuff! Don't let the forbidding cover design or the weird titles put you off. You will enjoy these books

IMAGES: Besides the book covers, stills from Howl's Moving Castle and photos of Diana Wynne Jones at different times of her life.