A correspondent, following my reviews of Tom Holt’s light-hearted fantasies, suggested that I give Jones a try. I’m never quite sure why I enjoy Holt, although I often think it might be because of his strange imagination that can mix the mythic and the real in extremely weird ways (giving rise to the humor content, obviously). I’ve never really cared for Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld I never found amusing (I did like, however, his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens). I can’t abide most American funny fantasy by authors like Piers Anthony, Robert Asprin, or Terry Brooks, but that is partly a backlash against my early, non-critical reading period. I came to the conclusion once after finishing a P.G. Wodehouse novel that I enjoy humor more than anything else, but it has to have something urbane to it, possibly what people call “wit.” Wit is clever, and it can be in word-play, scenarios, or characterization. It’s tough, because I want to make this differentiation fit both Wodehouse and Monty Python, Tom Holt and Douglas Adams, Carl Hiassen and Barry Hughart. I would hate to fall back on “I think this is a funny book because I found it funny,” with no ability to lock down why I like Blackadder, but can’t stand Beavis and Butthead.
Which is a long intro to Dianne Wynne Jones, and an admission that I quite enjoyed her light-hearted romp. To compare it to Holt, it is quite different in that Jones is a much more consistent writer. By that I mean she doesn’t jump around from character to character, always trying to leave you with a punchline. Holt, while jarring at times, also benefits from his antic style by having his books seem very energetic. Jones isn’t missing energy, but hers is a directed energy that is constant throughout. Holt sometimes injects his books with subplots or characters that are only good for one scene, and then never reappear. Jones writes her fantasy like a mystery, in which everything has a purpose and all is fulfilled at the end (Wodehouse was the master in this type of humorous plotting).
Sophie is the eldest of three daughters, which means, as everybody knows, that she will be the first one to fail, and do it more miserably than her two sisters, the youngest of which is sure to marry a prince or something. When her father dies, leaving her stepmother in charge, the two sisters get placed in apprenticeship positions that seem to her quite fitting for their fate in life, while she is doomed to work in the hat factory that her father had built. That is until the Wizard Howl’s castle started appearing and moving around in the hills above her town and Sophie receives a visit from the evil Witch of the Waste.
There are no real guffaws in this novel, but it is quite amusing at times. I liked it enough that I would give Jones another try when I’m feeling in the mood to be entertained.
[Finished 9 May 1997]