On Diana Wynne Jones and Good Villains

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Every Diana Wynne Jones novel has a villain. Jones herself was of the opinion that there are truly toxic people in the world, and kids need to learn how to deal with them. So the villains of her stories are utterly, squirmingly real. You know them, or you’ve heard about them from someone, and you recognize the truth of their existence on some deep level.

I think that the central feature of a Jones villain is that they believe the world should be a certain way, and they will not countenance a world any different. If everyone should be well-behaved, they will make everyone well-behaved. If this or that should belong to them, they will take this or that and be baffled and hostile to any suggestion that it isn’t their due.

Somehow, Jones is practically always able to balance a fascinating cognitive dissonance in her villains.  None of them consciously acknowledge that the world is, in fact, not exactly as they imagine it. Thus, it makes no sense for them to struggle to form the world in their image. Yet, they constantly have to adapt and adjust to force the world into that image–the same one they will not admit is not what they imagine it to be.

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It’s an incredible piece of characterization every time Jones tries it. Her villains want everything from a place to stay to a town to rule. Sometimes magic helps them, and sometimes magic defeats them–but no matter how much magic goes into the story, the painful reallness of the villain gives the whole thing a grounding in truth.

“The Ogre Downstairs” and Magic Across the Street

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Diana Wynne Jones once said that, in her first novel, she was trying to integrate the epic and mythical with the everyday, so that an ordinary child might feel that the world was full of the extraordinary–and might recognize his or herself in the story.

“The Ogre Downstairs” is a fantastically well-constructed novel, in which Jones succeeded in achieving and surpassing her earlier goal. What if a couple of kids got a hold of a magic chemistry set? Hijinks would ensue, of course. The kids have their own lives to deal with, their own problems, their own personalities and ways of coping. Throw magic into the mix, and you’ve got a boy learning empathy through body-swapping, toffees come to life and melting themselves, and the occasional marooned-on-the-roof incident.

The characters in “The Ogre Downstairs” aren’t really much larger than life, as most book characters are. They’re ordinary people, living ordinary lives. And magic comes to those lives. Incredible magic–that could be happening right across the street from you. Right now.

The Dalemark Quartet, Books 3 and 4

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These books are where the work of the first two novels really pays off.

In book 3, “The Spellcoats,” we go backward in time. We see the beginnings of the civilization we got to know in the previous novels. We see the roots of immortals in the world of Dalemark. And, most important of all, we meet a young woman who can make the world in her weaving.

That young woman comes back later, as do most of the characters of the three novels, in “The Crown of Dalemark.” That book, while it makes no sense without having read the first three, is easily the greatest of the quartet. Every seed in the previous books bore fruit, every character returned (if only for a moment).

Having gotten to know this world in the first two novels, there was something incredibly rewarding about moving both backwards and forwards in its future. There was the “present,” but there was also the past which lived on (sometimes literally), and the destination of the future slowly being revealed.

But best of all, to me, was the bestowing of the titular “Crown of Dalemark.” Neil Gaiman once wrote of Diana Wynne Jones that he often did not understand the endings of her novel the first time, and was forced to re-read them. His children, on the other hand, got it immediately.

I’ve often been the same with Jones, and the ending to this book was the strangest and most difficult to swallow I’ve ever had. I had seen the ending coming, knew who would get the Crown. But I still am not quite sure how he won it. And I love not knowing. When you read too much, it becomes more and more unusual to not know. It’s something to be savored.

 

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The Dalemark Quartet, Books 1 and 2

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These are among the only novels by Diana Wynne Jones to win big awards. And they’re pretty damn good–better than most people could dream of. But to be honest, I was pretty unimpressed by the first two.

The merits of those two books, I felt, rested most strongly in their last pages. The young boy protagonists were each faced with a choice, which would determine what sort of man they would be.

Lesser writers would have shied away from touching on topics as “grown up” as these. Not Diana Wynne Jones. The characters of her books came face-to-face with themselves, and neither emerged fully happy with what he saw. And that is perhaps one of the truest parts of growing up: realizing that we won’t always like everything we see in the mirror, and we’re just going to have to live with that.

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Bad Conversations with Writers of Fantasy

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There are good interviewers and there are bad interviewers. Leaonard Marcus–on this occasion, at least–is a bad interviewer. The great minds of young adult and children’s fantasy, and he asked them all basically the same questions.

A good interview follows writers down the rabbit hole, engages them in conversations about the creative process, about their inspirations and opinions. A bad interview asks “did your childhood affect your writing?” and then doesn’t ask any follow-ups. Seriously, there are like 2 follow up questions in the whole book.

This is a bad book of bad interviews with great writers. And each interview just gets more and more disappointing.