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113: CASTLES IN THE AIR

December 18, 2015

#113:  CASTLES IN THE AIR.  Years ago, a friend I was traveling with detoured me, on our way to visit Versailles, down a back street to a chocolaterie she knew of, where I purchased a nid au chocolat, a nest-shaped little cake in which rested a bundle of small milk-chocolate eggs.  It wasn’t particularly fancy or expensive, but it was made with real skill, and after all these years I remember it with as much pleasure as the overwhelming posh of the chateau and its vast grounds.  This is as close as I can come for an analogy for a recent binge of reading the young-adult fantasies of Diana Wynne Jones.  They’re confections, but done with skill and thought and charm; they’ll appeal to your literary sweet tooth, but they won’t rot it.

        Some of the new teen fiction, when it isn’t busy being the fastest-wheeling, gold-plated new wagon for commercial fiction writers to climb onto, has been venturing out into somber and interesting new areas of speculative fiction; Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion, for instance, is about a child who discovers that he is not the grandson but the clone of a horrible old head of a central American drug compound.  Jones is not of this school—her fantasies have an affable parodistic humor to them and remain in pretty consistent good cheer.  She’s a terrific plotter—as good as many a more famous detective novelist.  And what keeps the books in her series individual and fresh, not just one more domino in a row, is that each begins with a predominantly new cast and setting; the world (or worlds) of each series has its consistencies and conventions, and the recurring characters arrive later in the story, but we begin each time on new ground. 

         Her best-known work is the Chrestomanci series, six novels and Mixed Magics, a book of short stories.  The notion is that as major historical events occur, worlds split off from each other, becoming alternative-history versions of each other; the Chrestomanci is a nine-lived enchanter who’s employed to make sure that the magic-wielding population doesn’t start bossing everyone around.  Mischief-makers are prone to doing a little world-jumping to stay ahead of the law, and Chrestomanci and his assistants give chase: a kind of mobile, magic-wielding Better Business Bureau.  One of the amusements of Witch Week, alongside its takeoff of British school stories, is trying to figure out the world-identifying historical clue Chrestomanci needs, which is left lying around in plain view in best detective-story fashion.  Most of the bunkum Jones’s villains get up to is small-scale, kid’s mischief stuff, temper and self-indulgence—fingers caught in the cookie jar--which  allows the books to keep their comedic lightness, though in The Pinhoe Egg (the last and one of the best of the novels) we get a whiff of how tempers can get dangerously out of hand.  Tragedy turns its face towards two feuding clans, but is warded off by kindness, backbone, a young girl’s newfound confidence, and of course Chrestomanci’s magical handful of aces.  It’s funny and satisfying—two of the things fantasy is for.                 

      The six Chrestomanci novels are Charmed Life, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad's Fate and The Pinhoe Egg; they’re also out in three omnibus pocket-book volmes, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci.  Another splendid series—ideal airplane or vacation reading—features Howl the Wizard:  like the Chrestomanci, Howl is a bit of a fashion-plate, and certainly not above his own brand of mischief.  He shows up in Howl's Moving Castle (which Hayao Miyazaki made into a movie), Castles in the Air, and House of Many Ways.  They’re all helium-light and genuinely charming.

       Nancy Farmer, by the way, who is nobody’s postscript, has also written, as well as House of the Scorpion, two remarkable and memorable young-adult novels which take full advantage of their being set in Zimbabwe: A Girl Named Disaster, in which a Shona young woman, escaping an arranged marriage, sets out into a kind of dreamtime to seek her long-lost father; and The Eye, The Ear and The Arm, set in a twenty-third century Zimbabwe, in which a thirst for traditional knowledge meets a post-modern setting and the confusions of rebel warfare, and which is bursting its seams with invention and emotion.

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