Mar 28, 2012

A Diana Wynne Jones Extravaganza: House of Many Ways, Archer’s Goon and Eight Days of Luke

Kristen at We Be Reading is currently hosting Diana Wynne Jones month: she’s dedicating the whole of the month of March to her work, inviting other readers to join her, and generously offering participants the chance to win a $20 gift certificate. Since I wanted 2012 to be all about spending more time with my favourite writers’ back catalogues, I thought this would be a perfect excuse to finally read some of those Diana Wynne Jones books that have been lingering on my TBR pile for so long. Then one thing led to another, and I also wound up revisiting a couple of DWJ classics. I’ve been on a bit of a reading slump for most of March, and, just as I hoped, a mini Diana Wynne Jones extravaganza proved the perfect antidote. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the books I read:

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne JonesHouse of Many Ways is the third and final book in the Howl series (in case you’re wondering, the first two are Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air). The books actually work perfectly well as stand-alones, but they’re probably best appreciated if read in sequence, so that readers can make the most of the cameos by Howl, Sophie and Calcifer from Howl’s Moving Castle.

House of Many Ways tells the story of Charmain Baker, the teenaged daughter of a Respectable Family from the kingdom of High Norland. Charmain was never really taught to do anything for herself (her mother finds most everyday activities very unrespectable for young ladies) and prefers to spend her time reading. When she’s asked to look after the house of a relative who happens to be a powerful wizard, she’s plunged into situations she never had to face before – ranging from things as simple as making a cup of tea to complicated tasks such as finding her way around Great Uncle William’s magical house or confronting a lubbock, a dangerous insect-like creature. Add a missing royal treasure, a mysterious something called the elfgift, an apprentice wizard named Peter, and a threat to the kingdom of High Norland, and you have the plot in a nutshell.

First of all, let me tell you all about the many things I loved: as per usual in Diana Wynne Jones’ work, House of Many Ways combines an imaginative fantasy plot with a very human story about a girl finding her independence. I loved how Charmain came to see her parents in a new light once she had the opportunity to step away from them. And needless to say, I loved the fact that she’s a reader and wants to be a librarian. It was also lovely to see Sophie being efficient, Howl being adorably infuriating, and Calcifer being just plain adorable. Their appearances were like meeting old friends once again. Last but not least, House of Many Ways features the delightful Waif, who just might be my new favourite dog character.

My only “but” about this novel has to do with the fact that there’s no real moral ambiguity to the villains: they’re just inherently bad, and in the end they’re gotten rid of in a very conventional manner. This surprised me in a Diana Wynne Jones novel, and the only reason why it didn’t get more in the way of my enjoyment of it was the fact that there is plenty of nuance to the other characters: to Charmain’s parents, to the High Norland Royal Family, and even to Charmain herself. Also, the novel is really about these characters and what is going on with them, with the villains being important plot-wise but incidental to the story’s emotional core. I think Diana Wynne Jones is at her best when writing villains that are more fleshed out and have more convincing and complex motivations, but this was still a very enjoyable novel, and one that most of her fans are likely to find satisfying.

Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne JonesNext I read Archer’s Goon, which is about thirteen-year-old Howard Skyes and his family: when Howard comes home from school one day, he finds a Goon taking up most of the kitchen. The Goon says he was sent by Archer, and refuses to leave until Howard’s father pays the 2000 that he owes. Only this debt turns out to have nothing to do with money, and unravelling this mystery introduces Howard and his little sister Awful to a dysfunctional family of seven wizards who have Big Plans concerning the running of the world. And thus begins a hilarious and very clever novel where nothing is quite as it seems.

Confession time: although I know Archer’s Goon is a big favourite with Diana Wynne Jones fans (including with Neil Gaiman), it didn’t make much of an impression on me the first time I read it. I still can’t say it’s one of my favourites, but this time around I really appreciated the humour (it might be her funniest book after The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) and the typically DWJ-esque intricate plot. Archer’s Goon might not be quite up there with Hexwood or the ending of Fire and Hemlock when it comes to narrative complexity, but it comes pretty close.

The twist – which I had managed to forget about completely – was as brilliant now as the first time around. I love how masterful Wynne Jones is at pulling plot twists that are complete surprising and yet make perfect sense in retrospect (well, they are surprising to me, anyway - whenever I say something like this someone much smarter than me usually comes along and points out how very obvious the whole thing actually was all along). She does this matter-of-factly, in a way that reveals that she implicitly trusts readers of all ages to be smart, to be excited by challenging books, to happily follow her story if it asks a little more of them. There are many reasons why she’s one of my favourite authors (including, of course, the real emotional resonance her books seldom fail to have), but this is certainly one of the main ones.

Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne JonesFinally, there’s the wonderful Eight Days of Luke, a precursor to American Gods: David is home from school for the summer holidays and he’s feeling miserable. His relatives have made it clear that they don’t want him and that he’s only getting in the way of their plans, and when David’s frustration drives him to try to curse them one day, he ends up accidentally conjuring a new friend named Luke instead. Luke tells David he released him from a horrible prison, and that if he ever wants to call him all he has to do is strike a match.

Luke’s presence infuses David’s life with an excitement that was lacking before, but it doesn’t take David long to realise he doesn’t operate by the rules that govern most people. Still, he’s the only friend he has around, and his desire to protect him drives David to make a bargain with the mysterious Mr Wedding…

Eight Days of Luke is a wonderful reworking of Norse mythology – it won’t take readers familiar with Norse myths very long at all to figure out who Luke, Mr Wedding or Mr Chew really are, and this knowledge makes the book a lot more fun. But this is also a book that gives Diana Wynne Jones the opportunity to write one of her most brilliant Horrible Families – except there’s at least one member who turns out not to be so horrible after all.

I love how in this novel both the real and the mythical families turn out to have dynamics and inner alliances that are as complex and difficult as in real life; and how the relationships between the fantastic characters and the human ones help illuminate each other. Eight Days of Luke has this in common with Archer’s Goon, actually, and in both cases it works wonderfully well.

They read it too:
House of Many Ways - Ramblings, Stella Matutina, Jenny’s Books, Bird Brain(ed) Blog, Booklust, The Written World
Archer’s Goon - Books Love Me, Jenny’s Books
Eight Days of Luke - We Be Reading, Jenny’s Books

(Have I missed yours? Let me know and I will be glad to add it.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I heart DWJ and I have a huge backlog of her books which for the while, I'm happy to leave waiting in pleasure. I just want to savour it and do not want to run out.

    I did read The Dark Lord of Derkholm last year which was simply fantastic. Reading DWJ feels like coming home after a long time being away.

    I loved House of Many Ways as well and so glad she wrote another Howl book.

    I haven't read Archer's Goon yet and Eight Days of Luke at the time of reading wasn't a favourite but I'd like to read again.

    This post has made me feel excited to read some more... but I'm so scared I'll get to the point when I'll run out of her books. I have a tendency just to re-read her books over and over before I move onto a new one. I really want to do a re-read of the Dalemark Quartet and then Fire and Hemlock.

    p.s BBC put on a dramatisation of Witch Week which for the next 5 days is available to listen to:

    This might only be for UK people I'm not sure about radio programmes.

  2. I love Archer's Goon and Eight Days of Luke. Yay for Diana Wynne Jones month!

    I agree with you about House of Many Ways and the flatness of the villains. I remember reading on her website that she wrote this one when she was undergoing treatment for cancer and I recall thinking when I read House that her writing wasn't as jubilant and complex as usual.

  3. I keep meaning to pick up more of her books, and somewhere along the way, I get distracted. I've really enjoyed the few books I've read and could see how she would easily become a comfort read. Too bad I didn't hear about Diana Wynne Jones month earlier!

  4. I've not read the second and third books you reviewed, but now I want to! I really enjoyed House of Many Ways, I think mainly because of Howl and his lisp! It was so fantastic and had me laughing very, very hard.

  5. I really need to get around to Jones. I had hoped to read her in March, but it just hasn't happened! I really enjoyed House of Many Ways and finally have Castle in the Air (for whatever reason my library skipped buying that book...), so I wanted to revisit the trilogy...

  6. DWJ books can be hit or miss with me, for some reason. But you've got me wanting to read House of Many Ways now, if only for the dog!

  7. You know how some reviews just leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy...these were those reviews. I seem to be own worst enemy--why have I yet to read a DWJ book when I'm absolutely positive that it would bring me such joy?!! Oh well, at least I can say that I own a handful to get me started--all thanks to you, of course! :D

  8. Eight Days of Luke is on my list of books to read, more or less for the mythology aspects.

    I probably would have liked Castle in the Air if it didn't have Howl and company making appearances in it. And I remember that I didn't really like House of Many Ways, but the reasons for my dislike have grown vague or forgotten.

  9. You mean I didn't know about Diana Wynne Jones Month until the 28th? Sad... But delighted to read your reviews. I enjoy House of Many Ways and Eight Days of Luke, but I've somehow never picked up Archer's Goon. With a recommendation from Neil Gaiman, I'll have to fix that... :)

  10. Shockingly I still haven't read anything by Diana Wynne Jones. Something I think I really need to remedy this year!

  11. I need to find a copy of Archer's Goon. It's on the short list of DWJ books that I still haven't read. I actually ended up doing two new books this month (Earwig and the Witch and Eight Days of Luke) and then seven rereads (so far)! I just can't help myself. I know what you mean about the DWJ antidote. I haven't felt this excited about reading in a while. I'm loving just rushing through as many books as I can. I'm sad the month is almost over. Thanks so much for participating with me! These books are definitely best shared. :)

  12. I was just thinking of reading some of hers, and added one to OUaT - Hexland. I miss knowing there will be another book from her coming soon. She was the one who helped get my son interested in reading, he with the reading difficulty.

    I have to read Archer's Goon, and Eight Days of Luke. I enjoyed your take on them. Eight Days of Luke sounds really fun. I'm glad she was the one who got you through your reading slump, Ana :-)

  13. I'm one of the ones out there who have yet to read Diana Wynne Jones, but I keep meaning to. She'll perfectly fit for the Once Upon a Time challenge and I'll need to hop on over to Kristen's site as well. What fun!

  14. Oh, my gosh. I have read and reread Howl's Moving Castle multiple times in the last couple of years and had no idea there were two more books after it! I feel amazingly dumb. As soon as the dumbness stops drowning out my excitement that I get more Calcifer, I'll go read the next two books. Thanks, Ana, for enlightening me!


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