July 31, 2008


Howl’s Moving Castle. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $6.99.

Castle in the Air. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $6.99.

House of Many Ways. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume III. By Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow/HarperTeen. $7.99.

      The release of a new book involving the wizard Howl, House of Many Ways, provides a fine opportunity to discover or rediscover Diana Wynne Jones’ other books about Howl and his surroundings – and an excuse to revisit her Chrestomanci universe as well. Jones, an Oxford-educated British author who will be 74 this year, attended lectures by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien when she was a student, and was clearly influenced by those masterful 20th-century fantasists – whether by their teaching or by their novels scarcely matters. Jones has a sure hand in fantasy writing, which she has produced for three decades, and her stories of the wizard Howl, the girl Sophie and the wonderful lands they visit by opening the right (or sometimes wrong) doors from within Howl’s castle are especially well developed.

      Howl’s Moving Castle,
which dates to 1986 and is now available in a fine new paperback edition, has the distinction of not only starting the series of Howl-and-Sophie stories but also becoming a marvelously inventive animated film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and dating to 2004. In an interview at the back of the new edition of her book, Jones reveals that she was surprised by the means of locomotion of the castle in the film – it walks on huge legs, sort of the way Baba Yaga's hut moves in old Russian tales. Jones had thought of the castle as floating just above the ground. But Miyazaki makes the odd lurching motion of the castle into an important aspect of its personality – and yes, it does have a personality. It has one in Jones’ book, too – but a different one. So do Howl and Sophie, who are more hard-edged and in many ways more seriously flawed in the novel than in the film. The basic plot of both book and film is the same, though: young Sophie unwittingly attracts the attention of Howl and the enmity of the Witch of the Waste – who turns her into an old lady. Sophie knows that only through Howl’s wizardry will she be able to break the spell, but that requires her to find and enter the moving castle and interact with some very strange occupants, including a onetime shooting star named Calcifer. The narrative does not proceed at all in expected ways, and even though there is a happy ending (sort of), it is quite clear that there will always be fireworks when Howl and Sophie are together.

      And so it is in Castle in the Air, a 1990 “companion” to Howl’s Moving Castle that is also now available in a new paperback edition. As strange as the first book and even more amusing, Castle in the Air is a kind of Aladdin story, in which a humble young merchant named Abdullah gets stuck with a nasty-tempered magic carpet, falls in love with the beautiful Flower-in-the-Night, and then has to undertake a rescue mission to retrieve his love and quite a few other items from an evil djinn. He is helped in his quest, if “helped” is the word, by a dishonest soldier and a black cat that never hesitates to speak his mind. Oh, and he does have a genie in a bottle, but it’s a cranky one.

      And thus we come to House of Many Ways, in which we meet Charmain Baker, who is so sick of being watched all the time by her parents and so eager to work in the King’s library that she agrees to look after her Great Uncle William’s house while he is gone in the land of the elves. It turns out that William is really the Royal Wizard Norland, his house is far more than it seems to be, and Charmain needs to help out in a crucial search for a royal treasure – a state of affairs that brings her into close contact with Howl, Sophie and Calcifer. Like Howl’s castle, Uncle William’s cottage is a house in which a door can lead to many different places. Charmain’s particular door-opening involves her with a magical stray dog, a not-too-skilled apprentice wizard, and a mysterious and potent missing gift from elves known as, not surprisingly, the Elfgift. And that, in turn, brings Howl and his comrades into the picture – a picture as full of surprising twists and turns as in all Jones’ Howl books.

      Jones’ Chrestomanci series has its share of magical twists and turns, too, but it somehow never attains the heights of her Howl books – perhaps because the concept of what it means to open doors is so potent an underlying theme of the Howl novels. The stories centered on Chrestomanci, the most powerful wizard in the world (his particular world, that is), seem somehow more ordinary, revolving around an ongoing feud between the Pinhoe and Farleigh families, amid distrust of the wizard himself. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume III, combines in a single paperback the two books Conrad’s Fate (2005) and The Pinhoe Egg (2006). The first of these focuses on Conrad Tesdinic, a 12-year-old with really bad karma, and his attempts to figure out who is monkeying with fate from within mysterious Stallery Mansion – a quest in which he is aided, more or less, by his camera and a sticky cork that can summon a being called a Walker. Also in the mansion, and also on a quest, is Christopher Chant, and the two boys form an uneasy alliance to find out what is going on. In The Pinhoe Egg, Jones produces a tale-within-a-tale: the egg of the title is given to Cat Chant and hatches into a fast-growing griffin; meanwhile, the primary story is about the distrust of Chrestomanci by the Pinhoes and Farleighs. The Pinhoe Egg reveals that there are different sorts of magic, and there are some tantalizing possibilities of combining magic with technology; but the story’s combination of new characters and previously introduced ones will make it hard for new readers of the Chrestomanci tales to follow. Jones’ magic operates at a lesser level in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume III, which gets a (+++) rating.

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