So, I am still reading City of Fire. That is, I am carrying it around and hoping to have time to read it, thus building stronger muscles in my arms. (It is a heavy book.)
I was forced to stop somewhere around the entry of the first female narrative voice, though that is not why I stopped. It was because of a child's insistent, persistent request that I read a favorite book. Well, really it because of the child's insistent, persistent disappointment that I had not read it yet.
The Ruins of Gorlan was funny and lively. I understand why said child liked it. I am grateful to Mr. Flanagan for writing books that appeal to boys, and for writing (at least the first ones) fairly original works, though I do get rather tired of wholly evil super-villians who I am absolutely certain never do call their mothers (see earlier post.)
I did not realize, however, that I was supposed to read the Whole Series--fourteen books that come to have too much of a muchness to them. Sure, I like terse battles, self-depreciating humor, a shorter, orphaned, underdog hero who can vanish simply by holding still--not through magic, but by dint of understanding human nature combined with a wonderfully mottled cloak. Sure, I enjoy the awkwardness (from a boy's angle) of young love always held at a distance.
But before I returned to the denseness of City of Fire, I took a break with another children's book, Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones.
To say I am a Wynne Jones fan is an understatement. She starts somewhere in the middle of the story, bam. And that middle is always a muddle, and that plot always races, helter-skelter, so that you have to go back and double-check, and search for the clues you missed.
Like most Diana Wynne Jones books, Witch Week is dense, and beautifully written, but because it reads like a house afire, you might never notice the density. Characters, as in all her books, have to deal with making food or finding shoes or cleaning up the messes--real messes. And while they're doing that, things fall even further apart.
And yet, the secret, the hint, the solution to the problem, often lies in precisely the grubby cleanup, or writing lines, or searching everywhere for running shoes that have magically disappeared. (Reminds me, I must mop the floor--the old, old dog just peed again. I hope therein lies the solution to my life's great thematic issues.)
Wynne Jones' characters are not just complicated, but unexpected and feisty, blind to themselves until they stumble across the truth, even if they refuse to accept it. Children and adults alike make real choices--like Dan in Witch Week, who is so tempted by the joy of power and the allure of anger that he would rather be nasty and evil than give them up; or Nan, who realizes that she loves the magic of description--of turning confusion into story--more than the burbling delight of real witchcraft.
The threats are real, the humor comes out of people and every day life and interactions with one another. There are bullies and clowns wise teachers and foolish ones, while the understanding of true evil is always just beneath the surface--as when, at the end of Witch Week, the terrible, petty, evil Inquisitor terrorizing students with being burned at the stake, is transformed into a petty, complaining janitor who people have to duck or he will bore them to tears. Yet, with a new, queer double vision, we understand that both are the same, that given power, the janitor would happily become the Inquisitor and that his petty hatred could easily rule the world.
Maybe that's what I find the most satisfying about her work, that its villains are not uber-evil, purring bad monster guys, but regular, nasty folk who have decided to misuse their power.
Did I also mention how often her books are laugh-out-loud funny, and how frequently they ring absolutely true? Like when Nan, stuck at a miserable high table dinner with the awful Head Mistress, finds truly awful descriptions of the food--rice pudding as fly larvae stewed with old shoes, for instance-- pouring helplessly, from her mouth, to her great horror. How many of us have been there, babbling inanities in a fit of great nerves?
I have never quite understood how J. K. Rowling's books have taken the adult world by storm, rather than Wynne Jones'. I was so sad when she died, in 2011. Diana Wynne Jones should have lived forever, and written on, and on and on. And I would have happily read everything she wrote.