Monthly Archives: February 2016

Year of the Griffin (Derkholm #2)

Title: Year of the Griffin

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Series: Derkholm #2

Eight years after Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties were shut down, the world is still in recovery. Forty years of devastation won’t change quickly. Derk’s family has changed some, too. Shona is married with children, the older gryphons have all gone across the sea with Derk to meet more of their own kind, and Elda, the former baby (gryphon) of the family, is all set to go to the Wizard’s University, despite Derk’s abiding hatred of the place. Life at university is a chance to learn, to meet new friends, and to stumble into some terrifying escapades. With assassins and invading armies, will she and her friends make it to graduation?

I think one of the reasons this story fails to grab me in any meaningful way is the lack of a driving plot. I mean, in on sense it’s there almost from the beginning: the university sends out letters begging for donations to people who either didn’t know where their now-student ran off to or who have some kind of grudge against the university, thus triggering a flood of retribution. And that’s okay. It works. But it feels like the more interesting things are the ones that happen around the edges and never really get a story. I would’ve loved to see Derk and most of his family go overseas to meet the gryphons—they apparently stumbled into a war-in-progress, and a few of the gryphons ended up finding significant others.

The other thing that drags the story down is the sheer number of instant-love relationships. The gryphons are almost forgivable, as it was never clear if they ought to have some elaborate courtship rituals or pick a mate some other way. But Lukin is the only one who gradually builds up to “it’s a relationship”; at least three other couples are love-at-first-sight and two of them decide to get married immediately (as in, that same day they first met).

But for everything I have against it, there’s still a lot of charm. Elda is amusing as the only gryphon in a human college, though she tries hard to fit in (and because her father is Derk, who saved the world and has the approval of the gods, no one dares to cross her). It’s even better when Kit and other gryphons pop in. And I do like Flury a lot. His humble, self-effacing manner drives Elda crazy, but he sometimes forgets himself and lets his true power show through.

The adventures range from somewhat normal (trying to make the cafeteria serve something edible) to completely wacky (fending off assassins with…. a pit full of orange juice?). It’s never quite clear what’s coming next.

Overall, as a standalone book, this isn’t bad. It’s a light, fun story about a young gryphon’s first year at college. As a sequel, it’s much less than its predecessor was. It’s still worth a read, but don’t go in expecting the genre-defying epic that was Dark Lord of Derkholm. I rate this book Recommended.

Dark Lord of Derkholm (Derkholm #1)

Title: Dark Lord of Derkholm

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Series: Derkholm #1

If it weren’t for Mr. Chesney, people would be much happier. He’s an offworld businessman who’s turned Derk’s world into a fantasy theme park for tourists—and the powerful demon backing him up means the world has little choice but to go along with it. Derk himself is an ordinary man, who prefers to spend his wizardry on creating fantastic animals and plants, but when he’s assigned the post of this year’s Dark Lord, he has to upend his life to do everything by Mr. Chesney’s book. Only Derk never was much good at being conventional. And this year’s Pilgrim Parties have no idea what they’re in for.

I remember the first time I read this, when a friend of mine brought over her library book and I, upon seeing the gryphon on the cover, promptly read half of it before she had to go home, then went to the library to get myself a copy to finish it. My feelings about this book haven’t changed a bit. It’s still utterly brilliant.

On the one hand, you have a satire of badly-written fantasy books. Mr. Chesney has very particular ideas, like how all wizards have beards, Pilgrims are kidnapped by pirates or slavers, have a Coliseum adventure, experience battles, are seduced by an Enchantress, and go home after slaying the Dark Lord. And we get a behind-the-scenes view on how this year’s Dark Lord is conducting a very elaborate play with everyone else in the world to make sure this is what they do indeed experience. On the other hand, she remarkably also plays it straight—Mr. Chesney is subtly called out to be the true Dark Lord, whose weakness is the fact that all his power resides in the demon and not himself, and so on (to say too much would spoil some of the excellent twists).

Then you have Derk. He is, on first glance, exactly the sort of wizard who would seem perfect for a Dark Lord. He uses magic to make gryphons, flying horses, flying pigs, intelligent geese, invisible cats, carnivorous sheep, already-roasted-coffee plants, nylon, carnivorous plants, and more. But he’s a farmer/inventor at heart. He truly loves his creations—the gryphons are as much his children as his human children. They have a big, wacky family, but it is a family. And when the tours put a strain on his marriage and his familial bonds, Derk reacts very badly. Because what’s most important to him is not pleasing Mr. Chesney, or even not dying at the hands of Mr. Chesney’s demon. And it’s his love for his family, more than any great acts of wizardry or the united efforts of the rest of the world, that put an end to the tours for good.

In addition to Derk, much of the plot follows Blade, Derk’s son and a middle child. Each of the kids is so different, human and gryphon. Shona is the eldest, and setting herself up to be a bard, and has buckets of musical talent in addition to a propensity to take charge and order people around. Lydda is the only gryphon who not only likes human cooking but adores it, and as a consequence tends to overeat. Callette is the intellectual gryphon who discovers calculators when Mr. Chesney has a meeting at Derk’s house, and goes quite mad for electronics (she has, clearly, inherited Derk’s inventor side). Kit is the oldest gryphon, Derk’s first success, and just hitting that awkward stage where he’s nearly an adult but not quite, and bounces from overbearing to insecure. Don is quiet and competent. Elda is the youngest, the baby of the family. And Blade, the second human son and practically twin to Callette, is a fledgling wizard who can’t convince his father to allow him to go to university to study magic. Somehow everyone pulls together to support Derk in their own ways.

In addition, although the story mostly keeps its tight focus on the family, we have Querida, the High Chancellor Wizards’ University, providing more of a birds-eye view of the overall drama, the hidden war between the world and Mr. Chesney, which Derk, despite being a rather central figure in their plot, has not been told about.

And then there are dragons, dwarves, wizards, elves, and various kinds of people who have got themselves involved.

There are some dark moments, especially with Shona, that even though the plot doesn’t spend a lot of time on what actually happens, may make this unsuitable for young children (though, given the lack of detail, it’s also very possible they’ll miss the deeper implications of what probably happened). But I am grateful for the way the prose doesn’t fixate on the bad things, and offers Shona a very quick restitution.

Overall, though, this remains tied with Archer’s Goon for my favorite Diana Wynne Jones book. I love the gryphons to pieces, the plot is amazing, and the characters come so much alive. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Conrad’s Fate (Chrestomanci)

Title: Conrad’s Fate

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Series: Chrestomanci

Conrad lives in the tourist town of Stallchester in the English Alps. The mysterious Stallery Manor perches high above. When Conrad’s own plans for his life are upended by his family, he finds himself on his way to Stallery to take care of the black Fate that’s haunting him. That’s where he meets Christopher, who has come from another world in search of a friend of his. But Stallery is stranger than Conrad could have imagined, with someone manipulating probability for unknown ends. . .

Another excellent book I haven’t read in far too long. Christopher is, of course, Christopher Chant, and here he is at 15. He’s somewhat cocky, self-assured, well-dressed, and plenty of wry observations about the life of a domestic servant. The scene where he’s told to identify fruits and vegetables makes me laugh hard enough to cry. I’m also fond of the scene where a maid sticks Christopher and Conrad in a room with irons and tells them to iron clothing without realizing that neither young man has touched an iron in his life. But for all his self-centeredness, Christopher is only here to save Millie, who has run away from boarding school and promptly gone missing.

Conrad both contrasts and complements Christopher. Conrad, having a simpler life, is a bit more familiar with basic domestics, but that doesn’t make him good at it. Conrad has been told by his uncle that he has an evil Fate, and he’s desperate to get rid of it. It struck me particularly this time around how effective this is at pointing out the problems with karma: if everything good or bad that happens is a result of something from a previous life, it ruins people over something they can’t change. Conrad is eventually confronted with the fact that this is a lie, but he still has a hard time getting over something he’s spent quite a bit of his life hearing and believing.

I also really like how Gabriel de Witt points out to Conrad’s mom when she’s whining about both her children leaving that neglecting people does mean they tend to leave. Conrad’s mom is so blind to her own faults (while endlessly writing about the faults of men) that it’s almost amusing to look at the contrast. That lack of self-awareness is present in the Countess as well, who tries to manipulate both her children to her own ends. The best part though is that her children, though too polite or embarrassed or intimidated to generally stand up to her, nonetheless do their best to not allow her to run their lives.

Overall this is a lot of fun, mixing crazy magic and multiple realities with the hazards of being a butler’s apprentice. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Pinhoe Egg (Chrestomanci)

Title: The Pinhoe Egg

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Series: Chrestomanci

Marianne Pinhoe was looking forward to summer vacation, but everything is upended when Gammer Pinhoe breaks down. The entire extended Pinhoe family rallies to take care of her, but Gammer is stubborn, angry, and crafty. Only Marianne seems to see the trouble she’s causing, but no one will listen to her . . .

Cat Chant is in training to be an enchanter up at Chrestomanci Castle. He’s somehow accumulating creatures—a horse, a cat, and the mysterious egg he discovers with Marianne Pinhoe in a dusty attic. But he never expected to stumble across mysteries just outside the castle doors. Mysteries that could be more dangerous than he ever anticipated . . .

Has it really been ten years since I first read this? It certainly doesn’t feel that long. This story is a loose followup to Charmed Life (at least, in the sense that Cat is a main character again), but it can be read alone.

I like Cat’s side of the story better, mostly because Marianne’s is darker and more frustrating for her. Cat balances her out with more lighthearted moments, like the horse Julia and Janet want so badly that somehow Cat, the sole child who wants neither horse nor bicycle, ends up with. And, of course, the egg and what comes out of it. And Roger and Joe’s sudden obsession and what comes out of it.

I liked, too, how despite some very drastic differences between them, both Marianne and Cat are struggling to be taken seriously. Cat is bad at putting things into words anyway, and Marianne is arguing against people who habitually write her off. I liked that Marianne chooses to be brave, even though it makes things harder short-term. She displays really practical heroism—continuing to do what’s right even though she gets a lot of abuse for it.

And this wouldn’t be a Jones novel without some terribly dysfunctional family relationships. It strikes me that the main evil in her villains is how incredibly selfish they are. Gammer is concerned only about Gammer—her pride, especially. She has no qualms about getting her extended family hurt as long as she gets what she wants. She’s highlighted against Gaffer Farleigh, who has simply made up his mind and refuses to listen to anything that contradicts him (which is in its own way selfish—the attitude that says I refuse to consider I may not be absolutely correct).

The big fracas at the end does wrap up with a bit of an info dump, although I am still happy to see most people getting what they deserve. Especially Gammer. The multitude of secondary characters can be a bit hard to keep track of, mostly on the Pinhoe side, but the important ones do stand out.

Overall this is a great book. I rate this Highly Recommended.

Charmed Life (Chrestomanci)

Title: Charmed Life

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Series: Chrestomanci

Eric Chant (aka Cat) looks up to his older sister Gwendolyn. She’s been the only constant in his life after a steamboat accident drowns both of their parents and nearly drowns them. Even if Gwendolyn is the one getting all the accolades and attention, and Cat is left to muddle through in the background, he’s happy with his life. Then the mysterious Chrestomanci takes both of them to live in his castle. And for the first time in her life, Gwendolyn isn’t getting what she wants . . .

I would probably like this book more except Gwendolyn bugs me so much. She works very well as a villain—she’s a sociopath of the highest order, with an entitlement mentality to match. But to Cat, she’s his older sister, and he goes along with a lot of what she has planned, even when it’s not in his own best interest. I particularly like the bit where Chrestomanci boxes Cat around the ears as punishment for NOT speaking out. Cat’s passiveness works against him, but by the end he starts to realize that, and it’s heartening to see him take a stand against the sister who has no regard for him.

Chronologically, this is actually one of the middle Chrestomanci books (The Lives of Christopher Chant would come first), but it’s perfectly readable without having read the other. This being a shorter book, the world isn’t as on display as some of the others, but the little details are still interesting. This is a world much more open about magic, and it’s practiced by many sorts of people. Cat grew up under the shadier sorts, which shaped his sense of morality a bit (one also gets the sense, based on Gwendolyn alone, that his parents weren’t exactly stellar role models either, since the beautiful spanking scene in the castle appears to be the first time she was ever punished for doing wrong).

Overall this is a very quick read. The story peers into some darker corners, but nothing too graphic, and it all wraps up in a mostly happy ending (it would’ve been happier if Gwendolyn had gotten more of a comeuppance….). If you want to see more of Cat and Janet, the next book to read would be The Pinhoe Egg. I rate this book Recommended.

The Merlin Conspiracy (Magids #2)

Title: The Merlin Conspiracy

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Series: Magids #2

Nick desperately wants to travel to other worlds. He’s actually from another one, originally, and has traveled to a few. But that was in the (not-so-distant) past. Now he and his adopted dad live more or less peacefully on Earth, and for all Nick’s scheming to be a Magid and once more walk the worlds, he seems destined for an ordinary life. Then someone sends him stumbling into a place quite different . . .

Roddy travels with the King’s Progress all over England. In Blest, the king, the Merlin, and much of his court have to visit the country to keep it healthy. But foul schemes are afoot. When the Merlin unexpectedly dies, and things begin to go strange, Roddy and her friend Grundo may be the only two who notice what’s happening. But how can two children turn things around when  no one will listen?

This is by far the better Magids book, mostly because of Nick. That said, since it ties only very loosely to the first, you could read this as a standalone and never realize it’s actually a sequel. Nick and Roddy alternate narrations, and it works pretty well (except the first time they meet is told twice, and is a bit awkward).

I liked Nick immensely in Deep Secret, and I’m glad he finally got a chance to shine. Nick’s agreeable, seemingly passive, an absolute zombie in the morning without copious amounts of coffee, and fantastically ignorant about most of what he’s up against. He’s got a way of just stumbling into trouble, making it worse, then summoning up his innate slipperiness to wiggle out of it. His first time journeying into another world he’s convinced it’s all a dream. He’s so convinced he plays along with everything just long enough to really dig himself in a hole. He also presents an amusing twist on the classic animal companion trope—his black panther scares him spitless, and the one time he tries to turn to the panther for help, it doesn’t work.

Roddy’s sections are not as much fun for me, because Roddy herself is more uptight, and she’s a worrier. She provides a lot of needed perspective on the situation in Blest, and certainly interesting things keep happening around her.

The cast of characters is enormous, but it never gets confusing. Similarly, the magics are many and varied, but somehow it all works. I like the depth in the worlds and the characters, and how the story has so much humanity in all of its madcap adventure. I like how even the characters we don’t see much of, such as Japheth, are sketched with the suggestion of a life beyond the page (as Maxwell Hyde puts it, although a little event may have triggered a big one down the road, that can’t be all there is to the story). And the book packs in all kinds of humor.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve re-read this, but I’ve enjoyed it every time. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle (The League of Princes #2)

Title: The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle

Author: Christopher Healy

Series: The League of Princes #2

I tried, but ended up quitting this one halfway. Briar Rose just got way too frustrating. Her sociopathic nature is given full reign and although I would hope the ending includes a suitably embarrassing comeuppance, I couldn’t stomach getting there. Liam (my favorite character from the previous book) not only lost the will to stand up to her, he ends up MARRIED to her and doing her bidding . . . I also disliked that characters said flat-out that marriage was something that could be “worked around.” Especially considering that the most honor-bound character of the lot would then have to renege on his vows, even if they were made to an absolute harpy while under duress. What, then, does your promise MEAN?

It’s also a bit frustrating that there are several strong and capable women (Lila, Rapunzel, Elle) but the only man who could remotely make that claim (Liam) has had that taken away from him. I’m all for strong female characters but when it reads like all the men are incompetent or evil and the women are the ones who have to get things done then it’s just silly.

So, not finishing. And Not Recommended.