A Sudden Wild Magic – Diana Wynne Jones

There has been something of a gap in reviews. I have been alarmingly lax, what with one thing and another, both in that I’ve not really read much and what I have read I haven’t written about. Alas, the rest of the Codex Alera will probably have to wait for a reread. But anyway.

This one was… odd. I have read a good deal of DWJ, though most of it some years ago, so went in with at least some expectations of what it would be like… and it really wasn’t. It’s left me a bit unsure how much I actually enjoyed it, as part of my brain is just stuck in “buh… wuh… muh?” For me, DWJ is the stuff of childhood – ripping yarns of magic and children… sort of Enid Blyton with witches. It’s all wholesome and jolly good and what a lark – not just for children but for children as if from the fifties or so. It is emphatically not “kamikaze sex”, which is what this book was blurbed as containing. I am struggling quite a lot to reconcile the two.

That aside, it was a rather good book. It’s still not my favourite DWJ (The Merlin Conspiracy remains unrivalled) but it is a good, if a little strange, multi-world fantasy novel. The characters have the grown up version of the charm you find in DWJ’s other books, and the same quirky natures, such as Zillah’s strange absence of mind, and Gladys’ cats… or fashion sense. She writes beautiful, strange people, who revel in their strangeness – not the strangeness of magic and fantasy, mind, but a down-to-earth strangeness of person that makes them so lovable. I think it would be impossible not to love Gladys, the super-magician cat lady of Britain who wears what seems to be described as a flapper dress and furry Ugg boots to go travelling the multiverse. As one does. No one really gets explored all too much (the book is far to short for that) but you get these glorious glimpses of excellent people. Many of them are women, too, which does help. For reasons of <redacted> one of the main male characters is somewhat less developed, so what you mostly have is a cast of competent magical women, competently magicking about the place, running rings around magical men who think they know what they’re doing. I think this is a common thread for DWJ – women who get stuck in a sort things out and know precisely what they’re doing. It’s a trope, but one I don’t mind reading, and one she does extremely well.

On the other side, the antagonist… well… one of them. The more antagonistic one. She’s also female – so it is a very balanced book in that regard. She too is pretty competent, in much the same way, but with a side-helping of evil and megalomania, as is only right and proper. Very much a book of competent ladies all round.

The story itself is simultaneously very DWJ and completely not. The sort of broader points and ideas are quite different to what she normally does, a touch darker and more serious (and indeed – kamikaze sex) and with a more adult flavour – there are affairs and deaths and maimings going on. But the tone, the humour and the feel of everything is still so DWJ. The attitudes, and the sense of how things are going to play out, and just the sense of how people are with each other, fit very squarely into what she does and what she does well. There’s a sort of light-hearted, sarcastic… quite English… mockery that underpins everyone and everything that goes on. It’s not funny per se, but I do always get the sense that DWJ wants us to be smiling at what she has done, tutting maybe, or rolling our eyes. And the way that intertwines with the darker, adulter tone of the book is brilliant – the combination of the heavier motifs and the same light mockery just slots together beautifully.

The only real problem I had with the book is one I think may not have been an actual problem. I read a slightly iffy Kindle version, with some layout and formatting problems, and I think it might have affected how I felt the flow of the plot was going. The chapters aren’t neatly set out in it, so it felt like it was jumping around a lot, when it probably actually wasn’t. I may have to re-read in a more reasonable format to be certain. I suppose it did also feel rather short – about the same length as most of her other books. Which is a fine length for a book for children, but I want something a bit more substantial when it’s aimed at adults. I want a doorstop, if at all possible, but at the very least a good, solid, several day read.

It’s never going to be my favourite DWJ – not while The Merlin Conspiracy, Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock exist – but it certainly ranks quite highly, and it was lovely to see her doing properly grown up things just as well as she does books for children.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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