retro friday – house of many ways

Friday, October 26, 2012 |
Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Angieville that focuses on reviewing books from the past. These can be old favorites, under-the-radar treasures that deserve more attention, woefully out-of-print books, and so on. Everyone is welcome to participate!

retro friday

I suppose that from now on, all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books will be ‘retro.’ It makes me sad (nothing new from her ever again!), but it also, oddly, comforts me.  There’s a finite backlist to work my way through.  I imagine that her books will become something like family furniture: easy, well-worn pieces that have chicken soup-like healing abilities upon a reread.  It’s been a rather rough week in Cecelia Bedelia land, so I borrowed an ebook copy of House of Many Ways from my library and sat down to read my way into DWJ-induced happiness.

house of many ways by diana wynne jones book cover
When Charmain Baker agreed to look after her great-uncle's house, she thought she was getting blissful, parent-free time to read. She didn't realize that the house bent space and time, and she did not expect to become responsible for a stray dog and a muddled young apprentice wizard. Now, somehow, she's been targeted by a terrifying creature called a lubbock, too, and become central to the king's urgent search for the fabled Elfgift that will save the country.

The king is so desperate to find the Elfgift, he's called in an intimidating sorceress named Sophie to help. And where Sophie is, the great Wizard Howl and fire demon Calcifer won't be far behind. How did respectable Charmain end up in such a mess, and how will she get herself out of it?

House of Many Ways was one of my ‘Best Books of 2009,’ in my first year with a blog.  I don’t remember much about that reading, except that I was happy to be among friends (Sophie! Howl! from Howl’s Moving Castle), and thinking that the house itself was the best thing about the book.  After this week’s reread, I can confirm that the story is a good one, but sometime in the intervening years my perception and tastes have changed. 

One of the interesting things about House of Many Ways is that despite being called a sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, it is more like a companion book.  It will be understandable even if you haven’t read Howl; it is not a continuation of that story. 

Instead, it is Charmain Baker’s story, and as a heroine she is younger, more naïve, and more passive than Sophie (and Sophie herself didn't start out as a very adventurous sort of person, you'll remember).  This isn’t to say that she’s colorless and drab – oh no!  But Charmain Baker seems to have an immense inertia, pulling her always toward a book and away from action. It feels at points as if the adventure is happening to Charmain, rather than the other way ‘round.  For all that, she is easily identifiable to a lifelong reader: as a mirror of self.  Is there anything more fabulous than a book?  Possibly, but it’s always a great comfort to go back to one eventually, no matter how fantastic your doings.

Another intriguing feature of this story is the manner in which characters are introduced.  They trickle one by one into the narrative, and then toward the middle-to-end, there’s a large spurt, including my new favorite, the Witch of Montalbino.  The book reads as if it were a puzzle being put together very carefully, with a minimum of fuss.  This reader was a bit disconcerted to see the edges of certain pieces – it was a bit like a peek backstage when you have nothing to do with the play.

While not a sequel in a strict sense of the word, House of Many Ways is a satisfying companion book for those who loved Sophie and Howl and Calcifer and wanted a little more time with them.  There’s nothing objectionable, or sad, or really brilliant about it, but it is a comfortable, well-written story.  As such, it is worth the read.

Recommended for: fans of Howl’s Moving Castle, those who enjoy classic middle grade fantasy, and anyone with a soft spot for magic, dogs, and bookworms.


Liviania said...

I think most of Jones' books resemble puzzles.

A Beautiful Madness said...

Diana Wynne Jones is an author I'm not really familiar with. I should proably check her out.

Mel@Thedailyprophecy said...

I have tried to read a book from this author before, but I didn't like it. I might try this one out :)

April (BooksandWine) said...

I think I'll have to save this for comfort reading during the deep of winter.

Lovely review though, I like the comparison of DWJ's books to furniture, they are definitely like a nice couch or easy chair.

Melanie said...

I love series that let you pick up any book and not be completely lost.

It's too bad this author isn't coming out with any new books. She sounds like an epic writer.

Cecelia said...

Melanie: I should have been clearer in my review - Jones has passed away (thus no more books). It's sad and yet it's life, you know?

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