Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Through the Glass Darkly: Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jonees

When Jocelyn Brandon died--at a great old age, as magicians tend to do--he left his house and his field-of-care to his grandson, Andrew Brandon Hope. Andrew himself was in his thirties. The house, Melstone House, was a simple matter of making a Will. But it had been old Jocelyn's intention to pass the field-of-care on in the proper way, personally.

He left it rather too late.


Andrew had loved visiting his grandfather on childhood holidays and the old house near Melstone village seemed to him a magical place in those days, but in the intervening years, as he worked his way through the university to a doctoral degree, he saw very little of old Jocelyn and seemed to forget much of what he should have remembered. Then, on learning of his grandfather's death, driving back to Melstone Andrew almost runs over an arresting figure in the middle of the dark country road:

It was tall and its hair was white, its back a little bent, and it did not wear glasses like Andrew. Jocelyn's eyesight had always been magically good.

Andrew recognized his grandfather. "Well, at least I didn't kill you," he said. "Or did I?"

The last question was because he realized he could see the white line in the middle of the road through the grandfather's body.

His grandfather shook his head, grinned a little, and held something out toward him. Andrew could not see it clearly at first. The thing seemed to be a folded paper with some kind of black seal on one corner. The old man shook it impatiently and held it out again. Andrew cautiously reached out for it. But his fingers went right through it and grew very cold.

And we're off. English fantasist, Diana Wynn Jones' newest, Enchanted Glass (Greenwillow, 2010) is, in her skillful way, an anomaly of a book, a slow-moving but rip-roaring fantasy, filled with improbabilities which the somewhat clueless, but subliminally magically gifted, main character Andrew and then Aidan, an orphaned pre-adolescent cousin who shows up at his door seeking refuge from strange beings, seem to accept in a rather haphazard way, a suspenseful tale populated with the sort of humorous minor players that Shakespeare might have created if he were writing fantasy for children in this century.

In fact, these colorful characters are what make the tale so appealing: Mrs. Stock, the housekeeper who continually moves the parlor furniture back to their original places everytime Andrew changes it and serves the same cauliflower-cheese concoction every day to show her displeasure at the change, Mr. Stock (no relation: almost everyone in the little village shares the same last name) the gardener who eschews tasty, young (and edible) vegetables for the overly mature and mammoth in his pursuit of the annual first prize at the summer Fete; Tarquin, a (sometimes) one-legged little leprechaun of a man; Stache, his beautiful and brilliant green-eyed daughter who helps Andrew cope with it all; and Groil, a childlike giant who visits nightly to eat Mr. Stock's overgrown produce, just to mention a few. And then there are the supernatural folk, straight out of Shakespeare's own tale, A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose evil goal it is to steal Andrew's property and destroy Andrew and Aidan in the process to take over his field-of-care in the land all around the old house.

What to make of all this? Somehow Diana Wynne Jones makes a thoroughly delightful and totally engaging story out of it, making her assorted strange characters totally lovable and staging a mighty pyrotechnic confrontation of a climax at the much-awaited Melstone summer Fete, which sets all to rights--at least temporarily, since this tale has all the hallmarks of the beginning of a Jones series.

But don't take my word for it. Here's how the Manchester Guardian begins its highly favorable review:

It's always the sign of a truly accomplished writer when their book holds you, despite the fact that not awfully much happens. Enchanted Glass is no exception to Diana Wynne Jones's general rule of using, and possibly abusing, folklore and fantasy for her own splendid ends, mixing the spectacularly ordinary life of a university town satellite village with everyday magic and a potent dash of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And lest you assume that only Brits can love this sort of quirky fantasy, here's what the clearly very, very American Booklist reviewer says in her starred review:

Fantasy is a field crowded with gifted newcomers. What happens when a veteran strides to the plate and takes another swing? If the veteran is Diana Wynne Jones, get your scorecards ready. She hits this irresistible new book out of the ballpark. This enthralling book proves that Jones is still at the top of her game.

Young fans of those British icons of fantasy, Rowling's Harry Potter to Lewis' Narnia, from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, will feel themselves right at home at Melstone House and will find this one just delicious fun.

Some of Diana Wynne Jones'noted fantasies include Howl's Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, House of Many Ways, and The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: Charmed Life / The Lives of Christopher Chant.

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