The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Diana Wynne Jones

I love the hell out of this book.  I read it to my sister when we were younger.  It’s all about this world, and it’s a fantasy world, and a bad, wicked man called Mr. Chesney is using the entire world to give people from the real world tours.  And so the entire world has to do what he says: the elves have to pretend to be wicked, and the wizards have to be Dark Lords and be defeated by the tour groups dozens of times every year; and the cities have to get sacked.  And some wizards get tired of this, so they ask an Oracle how to stop it, and the Oracle says to make this one guy, Derk, the Dark Lord for that year.  It’s very unfortunate for Derk and his whole family.  He’s the kind of wizard who invents animals, like intelligent flying talking horses, and he has two regular children and five griffin children that he made; and they all have to get all crazy with setting up the tours.  It’s very trying for everybody.

I like this book.  Diana Wynne Jones wrote it after The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which was an amusing send-up of those sort of sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels that are all over the place these days.  Tall elves and everything.  The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was the first book I read by her.  I picked it up on my way out of the library, ages ago, just because it was on a display case, and it made me laugh.  Then when I went back and looked up her name on the computer – it was like a dream.  I should have appreciated it more.  She’s written dozens of books, this woman, and I love her.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent there – sorry.  It’s just not often that something like that happens, and I’m sad that I was young and innocent then, and didn’t appreciate how amazing it was.  Anyway, The Dark Lord of Derkholm sort of came out of the Tough Guide, because Ms. Jones had written it as if the world were being toured, so Dark Lord is about the people whose world is being used.  So it’s equal parts funny (because of all the tropes that the tourists (us, in a way) expect to see, and that the people have to work incredibly hard to give the tourists), and distressing, because here they all are, destroying their entire world year after year.  Bit of a chilling concept.  Neil Gaiman would have ended up with a much creepier book, if he had written it.

I just love Diana Wynne Jones so much.  And this isn’t even her best book!  It’s not one of my favorites!  But I like it a lot.  It’s a very Diana Wynne Jonesy book.  The first time I read it, I thought it was idiotic and boring and I couldn’t finish it; and the second time, the same thing happened; and the third time, I became addicted and couldn’t stop reading it.  A fairly typical experience when I first started reading Diana Wynne Jones.  Couldn’t tell you why.

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Recommended by: Between the Covers

Ah, time travel books.  You are so numerous, and yet you so often do not want me to love you.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  The Time Traveler’s Wife and me are buddies.  Time at the Top makes my life happy by its very existence.  It can be done.  Apparently with Time in the title.

(Just so I don’t feel like a big meanie when I complain about Doomsday Book, I’ll say that Diana Wynne Jones, whom I love more than my luggage, wrote a time travel book that I didn’t much care for either.  It’s one of my least favorites of hers, not quite down there with The Time of the Ghost, but still very not my favorite, maybe even less favorite than Hexwood which I also don’t like as much as her others.)

I don’t know.  I read this over a long period of time, much longer than is normal for me, and at no point did I feel the slightest interest in what was going to happen to anyone.  For this book to have worked, the characters would have had to be really vivid –

Er, P.S., this is a book about a girl from Oxford in the future, called Kivrin, who goes back in time to 1320 in order to study the Middle Ages and she gets there and lives with a family there and meanwhile back in future-Oxford a bunch of stuff goes wrong and everyone gets sick with a weird virus that came from they don’t know where.

– as I was saying, the characters would have had to be really vivid, because Kivrin doesn’t ultimately have much to do in the past.  In fact, no one does.  I’m so glad I didn’t live back in the day because I would have caught plague and furthermore it was obviously AMAZINGLY BORING, because nobody in the past did anything until they all caught the plague and died.  These things kept coming up, and I’d be all, Aha, a plot! and get set for that to be the important thing, like Kivrin crushing on the Manly Priest, or the lady’s husband’s vassal having a big crush on the lady, or the daughter’s engagement to the big old creepy guy.  These were not the important things.  They weren’t anything.  God, it was boring.  And then it would cut to chapters set in future-Oxford where everyone there was bitching about futurey things and asking each other where, oh where, could this mysterious deadly virus have come from?

(The past, as it goes.)

And I’m not saying it couldn’t have worked, this nothing happening thing, because there are books in which the characters are just so vivid and interesting that there doesn’t have to be a lot of action. You’re just content to lie back and watch these interesting characters go about their daily lives doing regular interactions and nothing out of the ordinary.  Doomsday Book does not achieve this effect, and blah, I just couldn’t be bothered with it.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

Recommended by: Bride of the Book God

I’ve been reading The End of Mr. Y for untold ages (perhaps an entire fortnight), with numerous little vacations in which I read other books for purposes of duty and leisure. This is because The End of Mr. Y didn’t really grab me – I wasn’t so much uninterested in this book as I was much more interested in others.

It’s about a Ph.D. student called Ariel Manto who is studying (among other things) Victorian author Thomas Lumas, whose book The End of Mr. Y is supposed to be cursed, so that anyone who reads it dies. Happily for the world, only one known copy exists, and it is in a German bank vault. However, Ariel, that lucky duck, happens upon a copy at a used bookstore and reads it joyously. She discovers that it contains instructions on how to get to a place called the Troposphere, which can put you inside other people’s minds and all kinds of crazy shit. Hijinks ensue.

As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story with Project Starlight and Adam and that lot, so it was jarring for me when they showed back up.

I also get rapidly impatient with books in which the narrator struggles for words to describe the bizarre and foreign universe(s) in which s/he finds him- or herself, or the bizarre and foreign sensations s/he experiences as a result of the bizarre and foreign circumstances s/he is undergoing. Without wanting to be nasty to people who do this, and I include Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom I love, in this category…get a damn grip. If I wanted to hear people groping helplessly for self-expression I’d just attend my classes. Especially Symbolic Logic. Yes, okay, I can see the point – if it were a normal experience there would be no problem for the narrator; his/her difficulty in finding viable words indicates that the phenomenon s/he is attempting to describe is outside of ordinary human experience. Don’t care. Take two seconds to explain that the words you’re using are only approximations, and then forge ahead bravely. Embrace the inadequacy of the English language.

(I ♥ the English language and its copious profusion of available words. So this may be a knee-jerk defensive reaction – Oh yeah? Can’t describe it? You got something to say about my language? What’s wrong with English, huh? Huh? – rather than a valid stylistic criticism.)

One brief remark:

There is something a bit weird about how Ms. Thomas addressed the issue of sex in this book. Ariel repeatedly refers to her “transgressive” sex habits, and calls herself a slut and makes nasty comments straight along about her sexual life, which involves things like being tied up with ropes and sleeping with married guys, and she just several times describes all this as being nasty and dirty and bad. And then when she and Adam have finally had nice, good, missionary position sex (which is glorious for them both) and declared their love for each other, there is this passage, which I actually find rather disturbing:

“Why don’t you hate me?” I say, even though I already know the answer.

“What do you mean?”…

“Well, you know everything [about me] now. All the sex. All the…everything.”

Where all the [bad] sex is evidently a specific thing for which Ariel requires forgiveness from Adam (former priest and virgin until a few minutes ago). I’m probably overthinking this, and the self-loathing is just a facet of Ariel’s character, but honestly the whole question of sex in this book is set up in a way that seems quite creepy and antifeminist.