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House of Many Ways: A review

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It's that time of year again. The moment when attentions shift from life in college (or high school, or grade school) to life after. In my own case, that switch meant thinking about the start of rigorous librarian training which others might know more commonly as graduate school. Diana Wynne Jones’ newest fantasy novel House of Many Ways (2008) centers on an aspiring librarian of sorts and actually deals with both libraries and graduation-related matters at the same time.

Surprisingly few recent fantasy novels feature libraries. After some deep thought, I could only come up with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Lirael by Garth Nix from my own reading experiences. I am going to go out on a limb and say that House of Many Ways does a better job as a fantasy novel with a library angle than either of those books.

House of Many Ways is Jones’ third novel featuring Howl and Sophie, following Howl’s Moving Castle from 1986 (also a movie adaptation made by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004) and Castle in the Air from 1990. Although all of these novels stand alone very nicely, certain nuances of the story will make more sense if you read the novels in sequence. Certain characters’ cameo appearances will also be more satisfying with the background afforded by reading all three novels.

This particular story starts in High Norland with Charmain Baker. Born to lovely parents determined to make their daughter respectable, Charmain is ill equipped for almost everything besides eating and reading—a fact that has escaped the notice of her parents and doesn’t much bother Charmain.

The only problem with her tame existence is that Charmain is unable to do the one thing she has always, desperately, wanted to do: work in the royal library with the elderly Princess Hilda and her even more elderly father, the king of High Norland.

As part of her plan to gain entry to the library, Charmain agrees to watch the royal wizard’s house while he undergoes treatment from elves for a mysterious illness. Upon her arrival at the house, it becomes clear that this house-sitting venture will be more than Charmain had expected what with the angry kobolds and the sudden arrival of the wizard’s new apprentice, Peter. It may, however, also be exactly what she needs.

There are a lot of reasons that I like this book and its predecessors in the series. Diana Wynne Jones has a particularly charming writing style that is both cozy and engaging. There is something decidedly old fashioned about the prose, ranging from the chapter titles reminiscent of those found in E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View to the swift and casual narration so similar to the voice Jane Austen favored in her novels. At the same time, amazingly, Jones integrates elements of the fantastic like magic and wizards and elves without ever seeming outlandish or contrived.

House of Many Ways is a particularly appealing title, by an already well-liked author. First and foremost, for obvious reasons, I like that Charmain is a bookish character who wants to work in a library. The other characters that populate this novel, including some from both Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air, are original and appealing though not by any means perfect.

Even Charmain, the novel’s heroine, has moments where she is quite mistaken about a variety of things. Happily, never long enough to become problematic for readers. At the same time, it is refreshing that Charmain is utterly useless despite her being so well read. When she arrives at the wizard’s house she cannot cook, wash clothes, or do many other things that most people take for granted.

This story is about magic and a fair bit of adventure. But it is also about what every college senior has to think about sooner or later: being an adult. As the novel progresses, Charmain learns about more than books and magic, she learns how to grow up and take care of herself, even when that means admitting she might need some help.

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