strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
Bought with the book token I won for participating in the Flash Fiction challenge at Mecon.

This is another sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, and for me a better one than Castle in the Air. Not to say the latter is bad, of course - it's just that this one has more of Howl, Sophie and Calcifer in it, returns to the gingerbread fairy kingdom setting of the first novel which I liked so much (though we're in High Norland now, not Ingary), and has a heroine I can relate to more easily. Actually, there's room to get cynical about just how relatable that heroine is: she's a sheltered daughter of Respectable Parents, who thinks she likes nothing better than escaping from the world into a good book, but actually turns out to be rather more competent and capable than she thinks when circumstances require. In other words, she is DWJ's primary readership with all their fantasies fulfilled. But for all that, she's so likeable and three-dimensional that you can't help but forgive the manipulation and fall for her all the same.

As the title implies, the book centres around a magical house (specifically, the cottage of High Norland's Royal Wizard) where space folds over itself in surprising ways, and from which you can get almost anywhere in the kingdom if you know exactly the right way to turn. It made me realise, actually, how particularly good DWJ is at architecture. There's hardly a single one of her books in which a castle, a mansion, a cottage or a hotel doesn't play a central role in the plot - and as a reader, I can see all of them in rich detail. I would recognise Chrestomanci Castle, Stallery Mansion, Hunsdon House, Derkholm or the Hotel Babylon, Wantchester. And the same goes for the landscapes around them, too. It isn't overblown, but the details of them seep into your mental picture bit by bit as you read - and I love that.

I was slightly distressed in this book to find that four characters ended up being turned into animals and then killed by dogs. OK, so they were evil, and lubbockins, and planning to take over the kingdom - but I'd rather hoped they might at least be imprisoned or exiled or turned into stone or something, rather than actually murdered. It wasn't quite what I expected from the Howlverse. Other than that, though, it's a delightful read, with all sorts of brilliant characters. And it seems I've read enough DWJ books now that I even nearly managed to guess the ending. I can't really say what I guessed or what was actually correct without creating spoilers - but suffice it to say that I was right to think that the little dog, Waif, would turn out to be More Than She Seemed.

In short, highly recommended. If you liked Howl's Moving Castle, you'll like this, but even if you haven't read it, this still stands alone very effectively.

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strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
This was an example of what some people (including someone else who read it) call a 'book ghost' - i.e. a book you read as a child, and of which you later forget the title and author's name, but which never entirely leaves you, haunting you with key scenes and characters that you can't quite place. Since the last such book to float up from the depths of my childhood memory turned out to be Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, and prompted a massive love affair with her many books when I re-read it, I took myself seriously when I kept having persistent flash-backs to a mysterious castle full of strange people, and a vision of a far-off magical land inside a glass marble. Thankfully, in this Google- and eBay-sponsored age, it was the work of about ten seconds to track those memories down to a specific title, and bag my own copy of it.

Having re-read it, I can see why it appealed to my childhood self. It's about an ordinary girl called Emma who one day steps through a hole in a fence to find herself in a huge garden, face-to-face with a strange and intriguing girl called Cassandra. Cassandra (who prefers to be known as Sandra) is lonely and desperate to make friends - but her family turn out to be sinister, dangerous and not entirely human. Despite the friendship which has grown between them, in the end it proves impossible for the two girls to be part of one another's worlds. Sandra's family disappear as suddenly as they had arrived - leaving nothing behind but the marble I'd remembered in the first place.

It's perhaps not as great a work of children's literature as I'd hoped, and certainly not up to DWJ standards. But it's definitely worth reading. It does some nice things with the genres of magic, science fiction and Greek mythology (specifically the Atlantis story), and addresses social gulfs in much the same way as Brideshead Revisited does. I suspect it may also be the origin of my habit of capitalising Hokey Concepts in my writing today, since Sandra has quite a lot to say about True Friends who Never Let You Down. And I'm certain it was where I first learnt the term 'folly' in the sense of a whimsical and functionless building.

The odds are that if you like children's fantasy literature, you've already read this. But if you haven't, it's worth a go.

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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
One of the things that happened when I moved into my lovely proper new house here in Leeds is that I finally took possession of all the accumulated gubbins which I had left behind with my parents when I first moved out at the age of 18. Mainly, this meant the books of my childhood and my teens - with which I am now at leisure to get nostalgically re-acquainted.

The Oz books were, in no uncertain terms, the central axis of my childhood. In fact, see this picture of me reading to my little friends on my sixth birthday? )
Well, that's an Oz book I'm reading to them - The Land of Oz, I think, judging from the colour of the spine. I had all fourteen of the original L. Frank Baum series, in lovely bright paperback covers as published by Del Rey, and read them religiously and repeatedly from the ages of approximately four to seven years old. (I had a random hardback copy of Lucky Bucky in Oz, too, but even as a child, I sneered at it and looked down upon it for not being a 'proper' Oz book). Dorothy, the Wizard, Ozma and all their little friends were fiercely real to me, and I was quite, quite convinced that the magical Land of Oz existed, if only one knew how to get there.

This all got a bit longer than is really polite to leave uncut )

strange_complex: (Chrestomanci)
I did finish Conrad's Fate last night, as I had expected to. My final verdict is that it was a real delight to read, and it is now my third favourite in the Chrestomanci series1. Since no-one on my friends list will have read it (with the exception of [livejournal.com profile] pickwick who, like me, bought an advance copy on Ebay), and a few might want to, I shall note down my impressions of it in general terms, without giving away plot details.

Some of the book's themes will be familiar to DWJ fans of old: neglectful or dead parents, overbearing older siblings, a central child character who gets manipulated by adults intent on their own interests, and that same child character having unrealised magical abilities (although this latter is, I was pleased to see, much less central to the plot than it is in Charmed Life, The Nine Lives... or The Magicians of Caprona). But none of this is to say by any means that she is simply re-treading old ground: rather, she's bringing in enough that is familiar to make the book recognisably part of the Chrestomanci series, while also introducing enough that is new and playing around enough with her own formulae to make it feel fresh and exciting.

On a very basic level, this is the first Chrestomanci novel to be set entirely outside Series 12. This wouldn't necessarily count as a literary leap in its own right, but it seems to come hand in hand with some new explorations of the concept of the related worlds, which are very welcome, and build nicely on ideas developed in Witch Week2. Can't really say what those explorations entail here: you must learn the full meaning and implications of 'pulling the possibilities' along with Conrad.

Another change is the use of the first-person narrative voice. This I liked because it gave DWJ greater scope for exploring both the confusion and the hurt felt at various stages by the main character, and also because it helped to make the prolonged tension between Conrad's imperfect understanding of what was going on around him and the actual situation (itself another classic DWJ device) all the more convincing.

Other notable features included some interesting playing about with the theme of acting (both in the regular sense and more metaphorically), a cast of consistently complex and three-dimensional characters and, of course, Diana's apparently effortless, yet rich and melodic, prose style.

All in all, I'm definitely glad I bought it: not just because I was right to believe it was a pleasure which should be enjoyed as soon as humanly possible, but because I'm proud to own a proof copy of a book which I now know to be truly excellent. I'll almost certainly buy an official copy once it is published on March 7th, as I very much feel Diana deserves my contribution to her royalty cheques. But I may just wait to do so until I've moved to wherever I go next after Belfast, as it's just silly to buy a book I've already read now, when I could wait until I've moved again.

-------------
[1] The complete order for me is now: 1) Charmed Life, 2) The Nine Lives of Christopher Chant, 3) Conrad's Fate, 4) Witch Week, 5) The Magicians of Caprona (although even that is still very good). Mixed Magics is unclassified, because I like some of the stories in it better than others, with 'The Sage of Theare' probably being my favourite.

[2] Although the suggestion in the last chapter that someone who stays too long outside their native Series will 'fade' is a) a bit reminiscent of Philip Pullman and b) not logically consistent with the amount of time Millie seems to have lived in Series 12 by the time of The Nine Lives of Christopher Chant.

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