Monday, August 2, 2010

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, book review

Eeep! Is it Diana Wynne Jones Week already? Here I've been happily using the week as an excuse to devour her books, and promising myself I'd get around to writing reviews "soon"--after I finish this next book, that is, or the next--I checked out a whole pile of books from the library, and then there are my own. I think I was trying to work my way through the entire oeuvre, though there was little chance of that--she's written a lot of books, and I keep discovering books or short stories I've never even heard of(1), and the books keep on going out of print and being hard to track down.

Anyway, I'll start with the one I just finished rereading, House of Many Ways. Charmain Baker is co opted by her great aunt into looking after her great uncle William's house while he is away. Charmain, while not happy with working as a housekeeper, is glad of the freedom and takes advantage of the opportunity to take a job as an assistant librarian at the castle. Charmain is interested to discover that her uncle is a wizard, and promptly tries some of the spells temptingly displayed in a book on his desk. She also runs afoul of a local monster and is dismayed to find that her uncle was expecting an apprentice, who shows up early on and is dismayingly determined to actually get the house clean while trying out his own, invariably skewed, spells. Meanwhile, the princess has called on Sophie Pendragon(2) for help finding the castle's disappearing treasure.

Charmain endeared herself to me immediately by her response to emergencies: Grab the nearest book and start reading. She's also curious and, despite a lack of training or interest in the mundane matters of housekeeping (which I liked about her, too), is very practical when it comes to figuring out how to get things done (once she's had her chance to read, that is). Waif, the dog her uncle had adopted just before Charmain's arrival, is an engaging creature and I could easily see how Charmain got so fond of her. I also enjoyed the prickly friendship she and Peter struck up.

I also appreciated the low-key nature of the threat: It was genuine, and the kingdom needed help in defeating the monster, but there was never a sense of this being a Quest that Peter and Charmain were destined to fulfill. Instead, much of the focus was on exploring the "many ways" of the house--its extensions into other times and places--trying new spells, Peter learning to cook, Charmain working in the castle, Peter and Charmain quarreling over doing the laundry, and the other small details of day to day life in a magic kingdom.

And, of course, it was good to see Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer again.

Edit to add: This time through, I downloaded it from the library's audio book site (I love libraries, have I said that before?). I am delighted that some of DWJ's books are available on audio books, and I thought Jenny Sterlin did a good job of reading it, but I was puzzled by the publisher's decision to put the almost eight-hours worth of reading onto a single, huge track. If I lost my place for one reason or another (like wanting to listen to music for a while), I had to fast forward for quite some time to get it back. Not a good setup. Enchanted Glass appears to be single-track as well. Puzzling.

Edit: I'm starting to think that the "super long audio track" problem with Enchanted Glass and House of Many Ways may be because I downloaded it from NetLibrary. NetLibrary seems to specialize in dumping books into one, huge track. Other sources may not do this, so you may be safe if you get it through another online library or purchase it.

(1)Witch's Business, for example. I never knew about it until reading a review in We Be Reading. Or Changeover, about which I know absolutely nothing beyond the fact that it's on the list I linked to up there.

(2) Yes, that Sophie, for those of you who have read Howl's Moving Castle. Howl and Calcifer also show up. If you've read Howl's Moving Castle, meeting them again is a delight. If you haven't, it's not necessary for enjoying this book (Though, really, you should go read Howl's Moving Castle at some point).  I'm not sure, incidentally, where this fits in relation to Castle in the Air. I remember there being some minor contradictions.


  1. That is a bad way to set up an audiobook. But this sounds like a good book to listen to in the car.

  2. You really give a sense of Charmain's character in this review. I like what you say about the book not feeling questy.