12 September 2011

In Memoriam

Assuming you're a regular visitor around here, it probably hasn't escaped your notice that we're all, erm, shall we say, Harry Potter nuts? And by extension, fantasy fans? Yeah, I figured. Well, when I was a kid, back in the pre-Potter days, I was already a fantasy fan, and borrowed and re-borrowed many of my favourite books from both school and town libraries again and again and again. Fast-forward to the three-year summer (you know, the seemingly endless gap between the releases of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix) and I was desperate for a fix. So I did what any fan would do, and returned to two tales that resided on the top of my list as a kid - namely, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson. And you know what? They were still really good! I spent a lot of time (and money, as by this point I was actually *gasp* employed and could buy books instead of borrowing them) rediscovering some of the classics from the 70s and 80s and then catching up on what they'd released in the meantime - as I type this, both authors take up a full shelf or more each in the bookcases next to my bed (and I only put the ones I REALLY love next to my bed).

But. Sadly, both authors also passed away in the past year, each leaving one last book for posthumous release. Ibbotson's I already have; Wynne Jones's comes out next year (at least here in the US). So in tribute to these fabulous ladies and the many, many, many hours of enjoyment they have given me over the past three decades or so, I dedicate this post to the very best of the best of their output.

Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011)

Howl's Moving Castle - This had a resurge of popularity after it was made into a movie by renowned Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, although I admit I didn't see it (Japanese style not being much to my taste). I can vividly remember the copy that my middle school library had, especially since it spent a lot of time either at my house or that of my best friend at the time. The story focuses on Sophie, eldest (but still young) daughter of a hatter, who inadvertently insults the Witch of the Waste and gets turned into an old lady. All sorts of crazy things ensue, with a cast of characters including her two younger sisters, a dog, a scarecrow, the aforementioned witch, and of course, Howl the wizard (and his fire demon). It's an excellent story with two sequels (though I use the word loosely, as there are brand-new protagonists in each), Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.

Chronicles of Chrestomanci - There are six books in this series (as well as assorted short stories), two of which were released in the past decade (I think I literally hugged the book and hopped up and down when I first saw one, if that tells you anything). The original four are Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Magicians of Caprona, and Witch Week (which is the one I read first), while the newer two are Conrad's Fate and The Pinhoe Egg. The central concept here is the many-worlds theory, where every time a major event happens (or doesn't), a new world is split off. The book's own explanation is quite simple - "Say a continent blows up. Or it doesn't. They can't both be true, so a world splits off" and the other course of history goes running merrily along. In each series of related worlds (usually numbering 9), the people are pretty much all accounted for, so one has a bunch of doppelgangers running around. In rare cases, however, for whatever reason someone's counterparts don't exist and all the lives get concentrated in one person - a nine-lived enchanter known as Chrestomanci, who is responsible for keeping an eye on the world's magic. Got that? Good, now go explore - I've read all of these many many times and they stand up to multiple readings very well indeed.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland - An affectionate homage and send-up of the tropes in the fantasy genre, "disguised" as a travel guide, this is an invaluable resource for the fantasy author who is trying desperately to avoid becoming a giant cliché... as well as just plain funny. With its "Official Management Terms" (like "reek of wrongness") for various overused phrases, playful tone, and generally hilarious entries, it's a must for writers and fans alike. So are the two novels that take it into story form, The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. To be fair, only the former really riffs on it (the second is a bona fide storyline sequel this time), but when you've got a package tour company from our world telling a bunch of magical creatures things they absolutely MUST have (you know, like demons) or face dire consequences, it's just fun beyond belief.

The Dalemark Quartet - This is a series that I discovered for the first time during the three-year summer, though I have no idea how I missed it when I was a kid. If read in publication order, the first two are roughly contemporaneous, the third takes place in the early, practically prehistoric days of the land of Dalemark, and the fourth, well, that jumps around a bit in time, actually... The North and South Dales are two very different places, with different customs and, well, to be honest, one of 'em isn't very nice. Morrill in Cart and Cwidder and Mitt in Drowned Ammett carry the story for the most part, with an assortment of siblings, friends, gods, and villains to spice things up. Tanaqui the Weaver takes centre stage in The Spellcoats, which purports to be a transcription of the actual woven coats. The fourth volume, The Crown of Dalemark, was published well after the rest (she did tend to do that...), and has present-day Maewen traveling into the past to take the place of a character who vanished at a really bad time...

Fire and Hemlock - Having decided, more or less arbitrarily, to limit myself to five entries for each author today (hey, I know you have more to do with your life than read my rambles), I had a really hard time choosing which ones to include. I love them all! But really, I absolutely could NOT leave this one out - not least because it focuses (at least for part of the time) on something that I love so very very very much. That would be string quartets. Getting ahead of myself. Okay, so in the main this is based on the old ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. Our protagonist, Polly, has two sets of memories, one with and one without Thomas Lynn in them (he's the cellist, by the way). How she works it out, how the story unfolds, and (especially) how it ends were huge topics of debate once upon a time - I've seen entire websites devoted to discussing the ending and what it all means, but rather than link you there I'm just going to say READ THE BOOK. 'Cause it's awesome.

(Note that several of her books are currently out of print in the US; however, it looks like they're reprinting many of them in March 2012.)

Eva Ibbotson (1925-2010)

Which Witch? - Still a favourite, after all these years. The wizard Arriman is getting tired of the whole "smiting and blighting" gig, and a prophecy has told of his successor - so clearly he needs a son, right? Except he doesn't even have a wife yet... Enter the witches of his hometown, Todcaster, and oh what a bunch of hags they are, too... except for the white witch Belladonna, but he can't marry a white witch, not if he wants a dark son... Yeah. It's totally fun. Chickens, bottomless pits, the obligatory evil-but-beautiful-and-oh-yeah-mysterious competitor - really, what's not to love?

The Secret of Platform 13 - There's a platform at King's Cross Station that's only open at certain times... Erm, no, not 9 3/4. At least not this time. This is Platform 13, which opens for 9 days every 9 years, and leads to a peaceful island inhabited by both magical and normal people and creatures. Disaster strikes when the young prince is kidnapped during a journey to London, and during the nine years they must wait before they can get back through to rescue him, a very unusual team hatches a very unusual plan. A giant, a fey, a wizard and a hag (just a young one) venture forth into London in search of their lost prince...

The Star of Kazan - This is one of Ibbotson's books which draws upon her childhood in Austria before the Second World war. A baby is abandoned in a church and discovered by two women, who "adopt" her and bring her home, to the house where they are servants to three eccentric professors (all siblings). As the baby grows into a girl, she befriends an elderly woman, who later leaves her a trunk of jewelry which she thought was fake... and then things get REALLY interesting. Frauds and friends and oh yeah, some pretty lovable animals too, all figure prominently in the resolution, about which I will tell you (as usual) nothing at all. Go read it yourself. :-)

Journey to the River Sea - A departure from Ibbotson's usual settings (the UK and Austria {or analogues}), this tale is set mainly in the Amazon basin in Brazil. Maia, a girl living in a British orphanage, is told that they've finally found some relatives for her to go and live with in Brazil, so off she goes, accompanied by a governess. Along the way they meet a boy actor, Clovis; her horrible twin cousins, Beatrice and Gwendolyn; and a half-British, half-Xanti boy named Finn. Set around the turn of the twentieth century, it explores racial and class prejudices as well as being a darn good book - it won the Smarties Prize in 2001 (yep, during that three-year summer).

The Great Ghost Rescue - What's a ghost to do when they're turned out of their haunting grounds? Find a human ally, of course. When the castle a family of ghosts has been haunting for ages is purchased by living humans who want to turn it into a resort, Humphrey the Horrible (who's actually quite nice) teams up with a schoolboy named Rick and some other ragtag ghosts they pick up along the way. There's politics and skulduggery and double-crosses and botched exorcisms for all to be had here, but this makes an excellent introduction to her work, not least because it was her first published novel.

Oh yeah, and if you hadn't guessed already - we're back! Summer hiatus is over and, if we've all got our acts together, you should once again see a new post up every weekday. We've mucked about a bit with the topics again, but it's the same crew of nutters you've come to know and love, so see you back here tomorrow !


Cruella Collett said...

Yay for end of holidays ;) I don't think I've read any of these, though I must say you ought to give Howl's Moving Castle (the movie) a go...

Amber T. Smith said...

Leanne, I already have far too many things on my to-read list. *groans* Now I have to add more...

Unknown said...

OMG! Have you really read all of these? *dies*

I am ashamed to say that I have fallen off the reading wagon of late. Well, reading for pleasure. Reading for work is a whole other untouchable subject right now.

Great list and will add some to my wishlist! Thanks!

ViolaNut said...

Mari - we'll see. Come back to the States and we can see it together. :-)

Tara - you can always put them on Ellie's list. ;-)

Chary - yep, read them all multiple times (especially the Chrestomanci series). I lurves them ever so muchly. :-D