Let this be testimony to how much I love Diana Wynne Jones’ writing that when Nafiza, Saeyong, and I were putting together folders for UBC’s “I Will Be Myself” Graduate Student Conference (which was held last Saturday and which went swimmingly, in case you were wondering – it really was an excellent day with insightful and in a few memorable instances, laugh-out-loud papers presented, both academic and creative) and I realized that “oh no, I have to write a post on crossover novels, what do I do?”, when Saeyong responded with a few questions about the nature of cross-over (which I promptly forgot in the relief of the brainwave they inspired) – cross-genre? cross-age? – my first thought was “oh yes! I can write about Diana Wynne Jones!”
As if I haven’t done so on more than a few occasions already.
But this is an opportunity to muse aloud on one of the most genre-crossing authors I know, so a warm thank you to Saeyong.
So. Diana Wynne Jones. A number of critics have examined the genre-bending tendencies of her stories. Jones considered genre restrictions rather silly, and ignored them as much as possible. Hexwood, for example,* is at once a sci-fi, god-game, and Arthurian story… and there’s probably a few more genres I’ve forgotten at the moment. (A god-game story is a story in which the world and individual characters are manipulated by more or less all-powerful beings. In Hexwood, the Reigners are these beings, and so is the Bannus (and also the Wood). The Homeward Bounders is another god-game Jones novel, and another fascinating mash-up of genres.)
The Sophie and Howl books (Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, and House of Many Ways are also cross-genre. One scholar (I think Deborah Kaplan, although I may be wrong and if I am, please tell me, because I haven’t been able to find that fascinating study again) has outlined the ways in which, as well as being a rewritten fairy tale and another multiverse story, Howl’s Moving Castle is also a romance – one of the pieces of supporting evidence was how Sophie has to not only win Howl’s love, but she must shape him into a proper mate. She has to bring the dashing male up to snuff, so to speak, bring him in line, make him grow up into his full potential.
The Chrestomanci books are also cross-genre, in slightly different ways in each. Conrad’s Fate, for example, seems to me a parody of P.G. Wodehouse’s books as well as a story of magic and fate/karma and the multiverse.** There’s the persnickety, terrifying butler, the dreadful Countess, her two unhappy grown-up children both trying to get from out of under her shoe and keep their most definitely forbidden love-affairs from anybody’s knowledge, the massive rambling house in which everything Upstairs is elegant and just so, while Belowstairs an entire army of servants runs ragged (at the worst of times) and like a well-oiled machine (at the best of times) to make everything perfect for Them Upstairs.
And then there’s Deep Secret, which has something of a god-game, something of a multiverse, something of a love-story, something of politics, something of history (or at least, history-in-the-making in an alternate universe Empire), something of a bildungsroman (for an adult, no less), and something of a parody of all the oddest quirks and happenings that more or less really do happen at fantasy and science-fiction conventions.
(Oh, and there’s a scene in Deep Secret which depicts Neil Gaiman in the morning before he has had his coffee; one of the main characters is as wholly coffee-dependent as Gaiman.)
And speaking of Deep Secret, how about its sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy? That has Welsh mythology and Arthurian legend, as well as time travel, a multiverse, political chicanery, and an elephant. Oh, and by the way, Deep Secret was marketed as an adult novel, while The Merlin Conspiracy was marketed at children/young adults.
Yeah, so the first book is adult, and the second is young adult. Which should tell you about Jones’s writing. Clever, deep, and darned hard to categorize. Mostly her books don’t have adult things like sex, but they do deal with things like murder, abuse/neglect/manipulation of children by adults, cruelty, bullying, power struggles, and other dark materials – like discovering that sometimes, on the inside there isn’t much difference between oneself and the bad guys. We all have that potential for good and for evil, and the enemy to be conquered is as much inside as out.
Which is true no matter what your age is, and a good story is a good story, no matter what genre is can be classified as, or what age it was written for.
* I am giving only a very few examples. I think it is more fun to find things out for yourself, and I don’t want to take away from your fun investigating Jones’s stories. 🙂
** Charles Butler has pointed out that Jones was the first to incorporate the idea of multiple worlds, or a multiverse, in children’s literature. The idea of multiple worlds had been around in science fiction in a minor way for a few decades, but putting it in books for children was groundbreaking, and has been widely emulated – by Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman, for example. (Four British Fantasists p. 94)