Aug 2, 2010

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones week is here at last! Please make sure you drop by Jenny’s blog often this week, as she’s having a week-long celebration of one of my absolute favourite authors. If you love DWJ too you’ll surely want to join in; if not, well, here’s a perfect opportunity to discover her. In honour of DWJ Week, I finally read Hexwood, which had been left unread on my shelf for an embarrassing length of time. If on the one hand I always meant to read it, on the other hand I was slightly intimidated by all the people who warned me it was even more confusing than Fire and Hemlock. Fire and Hemlock, by the way, is in my opinion Diana Wynne Jones’ masterpiece, and it’s one of my top five all-time favourite novels – but it does take some thinking to figure out just what’s going on with that ending. Hexwood is the same, only the whole way through. It takes an immensely talented author to make this not a bad or a frustrating thing, but Diana Wynne Jones manages just fine.

Do I dare even attempt a plot summary? The plot is quite complex, and I worry that if I try I’ll make it sound messy and impenetrable, which it isn’t. So if it does sound that way to you, please be aware that it’s completely me fault; not the book’s. Here goes (spoilers free): Hexwood is the name of both a farm estate and a small forest by a village in England. One of the village’s inhabitants, a girl called Ann Stavely, is home sick with a fever, and she watches some mysterious comings and goings at Hexwood farm through her bedroom’s window. A lot of people seem to arrive in Hexwood, only they never really come out again.

Once she feels better, Ann decides to go into Hexwood and investigate what’s going on. And that’s when she realises that things are even more serious than she imagined. Hexwood works a bit like human memory, and it doesn’t seem to have much use for chronology. So when Ann goes in, she can’t really be sure when she’ll come out again, or if her current journey into Hexwood is actually taking place after the one before that. Also, the people she finds there – a mysterious man named Mordion, a boy called Hume, and a robot, Bam – are different ages and have different memories of her every time she meets them.

This is really only the beginning of a plot involving Reigners from outer space, a sort of virtual reality machine called the Bannus, and a castle with knights on a sort of Arthurian quest and with court intrigue aplenty. Also, none of what I told you so far is necessarily what it initially seems to be. Don’t worry, though; the story does make sense in the end. Yes, the plot is convoluted, but then again I don’t really read Diana Wynne Jones for her plots. I read her for her brilliant characterisation, her excellent dialogue, the emotional resonance her stories are guaranteed to have, and most of all for the wonderful DWJ-ness of it all.

I think one of the reasons why I got on with Hexwood so much better than expected is because from the very beginning I absolutely trusted the storyteller – and that trust paid. Also, I suspect that Hexwood is very much a mythology and fantasy lovers’ sort of book, as it toys with the tropes of the genre quite a bit (but then again, this is true of many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books). There are Arthurian references, nods to Beowulf, enchanted primordial woods, and a mythological feel to the whole thing. Clearly DWJ was having a lot of fun writing this. I’m not sure if this makes the book inaccessible to general readers, but it does make it extra rewarding for lovers of fantasy. I felt that I knew the metalanguage of the story, if this makes sense, and that made everything even more fun.

In addition to being a mixture of fantasy and science fiction, Hexwood is also a bit of a mystery. My eagerness to find out just exactly what was going on kept me turning the pages, and made the book very hard to put down. I suppose it’s good not to be too eager, as DWJ does take her time clarifying everything, but all that wondering and feeling lost did pay in the end. I enjoyed Hexwood more for the ride than for the revelations or “A-ha!” moments, but there was still an immensely satisfying one that made the story I thought I was reading turn into something complexly different before my eyes. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m embarrassingly twist-dim, so I suspect that this would all seem very obvious and predictable to cleverer readers. But to me it wasn’t, and I did very much enjoy going, “Wow. I did not see that coming at all.”

Hexwood is not my new favourite Diana Wynne Jones novel, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to her work. But if you trust her as a storyteller, if you don’t mind a challenging plot, and if you approach it with the right frame of mind, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had here.

They read it too:
Bird Brain(ed) Blog
The Bookling
Books Love Me
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(Yours?)

33 comments:

  1. I've skipped reading your summary because I haven't read Hexwood yet but I want to! My review of Fire and Hemlock went up today. It was my first time reading it and I really think it's the longest an author has kept me guessing! It was an amazing book. It sounds like I would enjoy Hexwood too.

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  2. I haven't read Diana Wynne Jones in years. I found a fabulous book of hers a few years ago and loved it, but never seemed to look up anymore of her books. She is definitely an author I would like to read more about. I shall take a look at this one as it sounds very interesting.

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  3. I almost decided to pick this one up, damn wish I had now! Initially I wanted to read Archer's Goon but it seems to have got lost in my bookcase. My DWJ collection seems to be split up which is annoying as it was all in one place.

    Well, maybe I will read this towards the end of the week anyway, if I can find it again.

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  4. Nice post! It took me three readings before I figured out what happens at the end of "Fire and Hemlock: - I had a bet with my daughter (who also read and loved the book, and who also had no idea what goes on at the end) that I could explain it to her. Which I did - but now, we have both forgotten it again.

    I like Hexwood, and have read it a couple of times, but my all time favourite DWJ is 'The Time of the Ghost'.

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  5. I feel so behind the times. I've still never read any of her books. I hadn't even heard of her until late last fall!

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  6. I need to read this author. My oldest son loved her!

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  7. Sadly, I have only really read one of Wynne Jones' books, and that one was the wonderful Howl's Moving Castle. I know there are a lot of other great ones out there, and since there has been a lot of mention of a challenge this month, I am going to have to try to check more of her work out. I am not sure if I will read this one, as I am a novice when it comes to this author. I think I might try to stick to the more well known titles. Great review, Nymeth! I am so glad you had such a wonderful experience with this book!

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  8. Like Amanda I haven't read any of her books AND I only figured out who she was because of this challenge and a little bit of research. I watched Howl's when it first came out and couldn't believe how beautiful it was (story and visually). I didn't know it was a book prior!

    This one sounds pheom. I look forward to finding time to eventually pick her up.

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  9. I really enjoyed Fire and Hemlock, thank you so much for introducing me to her for our reading challenge :) this sounds a lot of fun despite being a little difficult (I never could resist a challenge). If I get time I will read Howls Moving Castle this week. Have you seen the Ghibli anime film?

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  10. Since I just read Fire and Hemlock and love books that rely on mythology and fantasy conventions (this one sounds like it has some very old fairy-story conventions, as F&H did), I'll have to read this one next.

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  11. This is the book dedicated to Neil Gaiman, right? And I read this one before I even had a Blogger account. Hahaha! I somehow envy the covers now (as well as the re-issued Chrestomanci and other titles bearing the same font for DWJ). I think they're more colorful than the mass paperback copies I own.

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  12. I'm not familiar with this author at all! I mean, I'm sure I've seen her name before, but I haven't read any of her books. For that reason I probably won't read this book yet, but I want to eventually.

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  13. I read this too quickly and WAY too long ago. I'm putting it on my library queue. Many thanks for your review!

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  14. Just a quick note to let you all know that several people have told me today that OpenID comments are not working (*shakes fist at Blogger*), but if you use the Name/URL option instead it does work. I'm really sorry, everyone!

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  15. One of these days, I'm going to try one of these...but it looks like Fire and Hemlock might be my best bet. You're an inspiration, always.

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  16. I've just put both of these books you mention my TBR list. I just started reading "Howl's Moving Castle" and am totally delighted. It is quite an antidote to the very depressing book full of nihilism I just finished (Real World by Natsuo Kirino).

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  17. This author is completely new to me...another reason why I love your blog! Can you recommend which of her books you would read first?

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  18. I've only read two books by DWJ so far (Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy) and I do remember the feeling of being dropped into the story about 20 pages in! But in the end that was one of the things I ended up enjoying the most about the books.

    The need to concentrate for the entire novel right from the start, even though I didn't love them I did appreciate the complexity.

    This one won't likely be my next, that one looks like being Charmed Life. :)

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  19. This reminds me that I need to read more of her work! I've only read Howl's Moving Castle and loved it (and also the Miyazaki).

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  20. Kirsten: Clicking over in a bit to read your review - so glad you loved it!

    Vivienne: Sadly many of her books seem to be going out of print, so make sure you grab any used copies you come across!

    Fiona: At least you own many of them! I really need to build up my collection.

    Katherine Langrish: I remember an essay by DWJ herself on Fire and Hemlock that really helped me make sense of things. I also remembered reading a lot on Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer right after I finished it the first time, which I'm immensely grateful for!

    Amanda: I know the feeling - there are so many seemingly popular authors I'd never heard of before blogging.

    Staci: He has good taste :P

    Zibilee: Do read more of her books! It's hard to go wrong with her.

    Christina: Howls the movie is indeed wonderful, though quite a bit different from the book! I love them both to pieces, though :)

    Rhinoa: I have, and it was wonderful! They did change the story quite a bit, but for once I didn't mind :P

    Jeanne: I hope you'll enjoy it - and I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Fire and Hemlock!

    Lighheaded: Yes! I was going to mention that, but then I forgot :P

    Emidy: Yeah, it's probably to start elsewhere - Howl's Moving Castle would be a great intro!

    Trapunto: You're most welcome! I hope you'll enjoy it the second time around.

    Elisabeth: I want the whole world to read Fire & Hemlock, so it made me happy to hear you're considering picking it up :D

    Terri B: So glad to hear you're enjoying it!

    Kathleen: You're too kind! I'd recommend either Fire and Hemlock (my favourite) or Howl's Moving Castle (a complete delight and very accessible).

    Darren: She does have a soft spot for complex plots, but not all her books are like that :P I think you'll find that Charmed Life is something else altogether.

    Pardon My French: Yes you do! And the two versions of Howl's are indeed lovely :)

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  21. You don't read Diana Wynne Jones books for the plots. I am intrigued because that is totally true but I never thought of it before. You're right! I don't read her books for the plots either! Not that I dislike her plots (many are very good), but it's more about the characters, isn't it? #minorepiphany

    I didn't like Hume. I think that lessened my enjoyment of this one. I wanted to smack Hume, all the time, even when he was only little.

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  22. After reading so much about DWJ today, I think I NEED to read her! I haven't yet so I definitely feel like I'm missing out now. ;p

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  23. Hexwood. This book has been sitting on my TBR pile for ages! I remember I bought it after I watched and loved the animation - Howl's Moving Castle, though I haven't read the print version yet.

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  24. *sigh* Why have I still not read any Jones?? I have this block against her books for some reason and I know that's stupid stupid stupid. I'm sure I'd love her!!

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  25. Thank you for giving me Fire and Hemlock as my introduction to Diana Wynne Jones- I've been looking for a place to start! I've unfortunately never read her work.

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  26. I've always assumed that when I *finally* get around to reading one of her books, I would start with Fire and Hemlock (yes, of course, because of you :) ). But now I'm a bit afraid to, after what you said about the ending. You know how I view my intellectual skills, after all. ;) So, where should I start--any suggestions?

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  27. I haven't read anything by this author but I think I really need to at some point. Sounds like a great book.

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  28. Thanks for the recommendations Ana!

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  29. I am a DWJ virgin :-D ... is there a particular novel you'd recommend that I start with?

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  30. Jenny: lol! It really is. Not that she doesn't write some great plots like you said, but that's never been what hooks me.

    She: Yes you do. ASAP :P

    Melody: Howl's the film is lovely, and so is Howl's the book :)

    Chris: Please get over that silly block right now kthxbai :P Seriously Chris, you'll LOVE her.

    Clare: You couldn't have picked a better one to start with! I can't wait to hear what you think.

    Debi: YOU WILL BE FINE WITH FIRE AND HEMLOCK. But if you'd really rather not start there, Black Maria (Aunt Maria in the US) and Howl's Moving Castle are also excellent books :P

    Amy: Yes you do. EVERYBODY does! :P

    Kathleen, you're most welcome!

    Stephanie: I'm always going to answer that question with Fire & Hemlock ;)

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  31. Sorry to say that I never heard of this book or author! And from your review I am apparently missing out. Thanks Nymeth! Adding this to the tbr.

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  32. I've never heard of this author before but I'm in love with this cover!

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  33. Jenny Girl: I'm glad to have brought DWJ to your attention! She's absolutely wonderful.

    Jen: Yes, the cover is lovely! And you have to read her sometime :P

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