I still love Diana Wynne Jones. She’s one of the grandes dames of British children’s fantasy, rx and I’ve reviewed several of her books previously. One of those, check The Dark Lord of Derkholm, order was one of my favorite books EVER. It was, quite simply, in my mind, the perfect blend of humor and character and plot and action. It had griffins and dragons and wizards and bards and a lot of amusement; overall, that’s probably one of my top 10 recommended novels of all time. Today’s novel is actually the sequel to that story. One might guess that I went into this book with a large amount of expectation.
Elda, who is one of Derk’s griffin children, has started at the University. The economy of the world has been a little screwed up since the events of The Dark Lord of Derkholm, and the University is running out of money. There are six students in the first-year class, and it seems that most of them are there without their parents’ consent. (Including Elda. Derk isn’t a fan of the university.) So when the current head of the University sends home letters to ask for donations to the first-year students’ parents, all heck breaks loose. All sorts of crazy politics start, including bizarre food, dwarves, griffins from another continent, a professor obsessed with getting to the moon, and mandatory grade deflation . . .
I really thought this book was going to be wonderful; it was the sequel to one of my favorite books, after all. On top of that, it started out similarly, and looked like it was going into a university-type boarding school book (think Harry Potter, with sixteen-year-olds). I do rather like boarding-school books (see here for another one). In truth, all the boarding-school aspects of the book were wonderful; there was some really great interaction between the six members of the first-year class, and I loved it when they worked together for various reasons. I also really loved the University and its library; her take on a library cataloguing system is wonderful.
Unfortunately, there’s too much politics in this book. It kind of feels like, after writing Derkholm, Ms. Jones was asked to provide a sequel, and then she had to invent an entire world. Yes, I know, a lot of the other places were mentioned in the first volume — and even some of the students — but overall, the general politics of the world were left uninvented and undescribed in the first volume. In the second volume, though, all of a sudden we have an explosion of other places and all sorts of problems in them. Some of them felt a little bit forced. The appearance of the griffins from the other continent — yes, I know they were mentioned at the end of book 1 — also felt a little odd.
Now, it’s still a Diana Wynne Jones book, and as such certainly isn’t a BAD book. The characters are still intriguing, from the slightly dumb ex-top-student professor to the Emperor’s half-sister and the revolutionary dwarf, Ruskin. The setting is great, as I mentioned, and there’s definitely a good amount of humor and amusement in this book as well. There’s a great scene in the Empire — well, I don’t describe it, since it might give too much away, but in any case, know that there is a great scene in the empire. Overall, it’s as if Ms. Jones set out to hit a home run, and accidentally got a ground-rule double instead. Definitely good, definitely useful, definitely upping her batting average, but not quite a home run. 3.5/5 stars.