A Sudden Wild Magic by Diana Wynne Jones

In the early nineties, adults apparently didn't read teen or children's literature without a sense of shame. Throwing a bone to her adult readers, Diana Wynne Jones took all of the things she liked putting in books for children, magic, multiple universes, complex plots with colourful characters and attempted to put them into a book with adult protagonists and concerns, like sex, unhappy marriage, and fast cars, and still succeed at what should be the most basic goal of any writer; to tell a good story.

For centuries, a secret network of male and female witches have protected Britain against magical attack. As the Ring, the council at the head of this network is turning its attention to the recent problem of climate change, Mark Lister; magician and computer programmer makes a startling discovery. Knowledge is being siphoned from our world by a pirate universe, who in turn are creating wars and disasters as lab experiments in order to borrow the solutions. These disasters also serve to keep the magical defenders of earth distracted. When the Ring learns that all of these experiments are being carried out from the pocket dimension of Arth, they have a target. When they also learn that Arth is the home to an order of sober and celibate male mages, they have a plan of attack. Despite a disastrous landing and the loss of most of their magical weapons, there is much that a bus full of witches bent on disrupting the staid patterns of Arth can do, especially when they come armed with kamikaze sex, mathematics, cookery, subversive dance classes, and even love. Two unexpected passengers on the so-called celestial omnibus are Zillah Green and her young son Marcus. Desperately in love with Mark, Zillah couldn't bear to see his continuing destructive marriage to the loathsome Paulie, though even Zillah didn't expect her desire to get away, along with her wild magical talent, would send her to another universe. As the women begin their disruptive campaign on Arth however, sinister forces are at play, since the mages of Arth are themselves the tools of a more malign force, the sorceresses of Lethe, whose leader Lady Marceny, has enacted her own plans to plunder the magic and ideas of Earth, plans that have dire consequences for Zillah, Mark and even young Marcus.

Some reviews I've seen have cited the first few chapters of A Sudden Wild Magic as a weakness, since they chiefly exist to introduce the very large cast of characters, show us two out of the three universes the book takes place in and set up a lot of the events that fuel the later plot. Though they do not move quite at the pace of the rest of the story, I'm a little confused about what problem people have here. Wynne Jones had a lot of reservations about writing for adults, one of them being that adults (at least the adults she presented the book to back in 1992 such as her editor), apparently couldn't follow complex plots, necessitating her to have to slow down a little or pad the narrative. Yet, oddly enough I never personally found the start of the book padded, since I was eager to find out what was really going on. Wynne Jones has always been great at giving us instantly colourful characters, whether good or bad, and conveying a lot of information about her magical worlds very quickly, and A Sudden Wild Magic is no exception. Indeed, the introductions have almost a tree structure, where we begin with the analytical Mark's realisation that our world has been subject to extradimensional monkeying around, then moving on to other members of the Ring, such as the motherly Amanda, the selfish Maureen or the wise and dotty Gladys; a canny old witch who could give even Granny Weatherwax a run for her money. As the narrative moves on to Arth we are introduced to yet another complex set of characters and relationships, from the pompous and self-important High Head (also called High Horns due to his head dress), to the laconic and relaxed Tod, indeed it is through Tod's perspective that the celestial omnibus eventually, arrives bringing with it yet more perspectives from new characters. There is absolutely no problem with having a large roster of characters, and it's to Wynne Jones' credit that everyone is more than colourful enough to keep track of. Also, though the plot of the whole book has the trademark Wynne Jones circuitous craziness, nobody's entirely wasted. That being said, often character perspectives or relations do feel somewhat underused, or at least, only touched upon briefly. For example, though the relationships of Mark and Zillah are central to the book, Mark briefly mentions a casual affair with Maureen, which is never dealt with in either perspective, since Maureen essentially gets shoved into a holding pattern for almost all of the plot; admittedly, it's a holding pattern featuring a spy, a lot of bickering, and nightmarish, Lovecraftian horrors, but still essentially a position with little significance until the book’s finale. Wynne Jones did state at one point, that when trying to write for adults, she almost subconsciously found herself planning a longer novel, then, shook herself out of this idea when the plot wrapped itself up, and unfortunately, in the large, and often slightly underused cast, this does rather show.

The closest thing the book has to two central protagonists are Zillah and Tod, both of whom are fascinating in their own ways. With her usual sense of economy, Wynne Jones does a subtle job of making Zillah an uncertain person, recovering from a thankfully largely undescribed childhood under an abusive mother, who, despite being curious and empathic, and lovingly devoted to her son, also has issues committing to courses of action, or even engaging with any kind of conflict. Tod is just the sort of character Wynne Jones manages to excel at, a playboy of a prince, with a load of in-born magical power, quite aside from his political clout, with a devoted love of beautiful cars and an interest in beautiful women, who also manages to be one of the most relaxed, kindly and genuinely likable people you could wish to meet, standing up to bullies, quite happy to befriend social outcasts, and even gifted when it comes to understanding and dealing with toddlers like Marcus. Though as Tod explains, having six older sisters, many of whom are married, child interpretation is definitely a skill he needed to master.

Of course, the plot really kicks into gear when the celestial omnibus arrives, and though this means the introduction of yet more characters, again, they quickly become a likable crew. It is a slight shame that the mission's gay male witch; whom we hear about in passing does not feature in the book, that being said, the interaction of six very different women, as well as one toddlere, and a citadel full of celibate, academic mages makes for some amazing moments, whether the grumpy High Head of Arth being utterly dumbfounded in dealing with a small child, or the rather entertaining way that nobody will actually believe the women are from the world they've been mining for ideas, since its Arth's established position that that world is full of reptiles and doesn't have any people in it; and of course Arth's established position cannot possibly be wrong!

It's also here that another major theme is introduced into the book, sex! Apparently, Wynne Jones' editor accused her of being "too nice", in determining what would happen to six women in a castle full of celibate men. Wynne Jones retorted that fantasy readers (even in 1992), were far too inclined to expect tragedy. She stated quite bluntly that what happens here is predicated on the idea of six very real women with their own personalities interacting with a group of very real, if occasionally rather innocent men. Thus each of the women's responses is entirely individualistic, and range from Roz, the bitchy team leader and total vamp, to the coolly compassionate cook Helen's dance with the extremely kindly, but dedicated celibate brother Milo, to the traumatised Judy's genuinely sweet interaction with Edward the castle's head healer. This is not to say all the men are perfect gentlemen, but scumbags are few, and even when they do have an effect, such as the exasperated High Head's dislike of women generally, and Zillah in particular, or the ways he disguises vindictive nastiness in protecting what he perceives as the castle's focus, these reactions are a minority. Neither are the women depicted as entirely helpless, indeed, though not perhaps as blatantly promiscuous as Roz, Perky Dancer Flan's response to sexual blackmail is to simply shrug her shoulders, sleep with the blackmailer; who she found pretty attractive anyway, then blackmail him right back for breaking his oath.

Some people have objected strongly to this strand of the plot, one very notable modern reviewer even referring to it unfairly; and inaccurately, as "smut". Yet, Wynne Jones' hand with all of the descriptions is a delicate one. Sex is talked about a fair amount, but the most that is shown is just a bit of light cuddling; including cuddling between friends; indeed to say how much sex is discussed, the book is far less explicit than many YA novels. This leads to an overall effect that is sweet, at times a little naughty, and generally both uplifting, and quite a lot of fun.

The only major problem in this section, is that once again, Wynne Jones’ need to crack on with the plot slightly short changes a couple of the women. Helen's story is more talked about than seen, and Sandra; the group's mathematician who attempts to subvert Arth by changing their magical calculations, is almost entirely absent.

For all that most of the plot is light, fluffy and magical, Wynne Jones has a distinct gift for occasionally wrong footing readers with a sentence, turn of phrase or piece of description that suddenly dips into horror, or hints at things darker, and grimmer. In A Sudden Wild Magic, these moments are mostly very subtle, but are undoubtedly still there, with some lurking monsters or nasty transformations. It's also in keeping with the book that several of these moments have to do with sex; since while Wynne Jones never goes near the explicit, she does have several unpleasant allusions. One of these involves Tod being assigned to seduce a very loathsome woman, indeed it again speaks for Wynne Jones subtlety, that she realises that for a man, a woman, even a perfectly nice looking woman can still be emotionally, and physically repellent. Even though in this scene said woman has been bewitched into feeling an intense desire for Tod; something which is also not painted as okay, we actually feel more sorry for Tod; though fortunately, this business is interrupted before it can go too far.

The only major problem I have with A Sudden Wild Magic, is that the plot often feels too obviously jerked around by magical forces. It’s established early on that getting to and from Arth, either from Earth or even from its parent world of the pentarchy is extremely difficult, yet characters freely get zipped around by bursts of magic whenever the plot needs to change tack. Indeed, both Tod's magical birthright and Zillah's wild magic have a habit of turning up at just the right moment to pull them out of trouble. Of course, as we're so attached to Tod and Zillah, and as her descriptions of this magic still remain wonderfully captivating, this isn't as much of a problem as it might be for other writers, nevertheless, when I found yet another interesting section, such as Zillah and the other women exploring the citadel, or Tod getting used to life on Earth, suddenly hopping somewhere else by magic, when I would have been quite happy to see more of the original situation, I do confess to being a little disappointed.

Then again, the plot just takes so many random, transcendental, and often down right rollocking swerves, that; as frequently happens with Wynne Jones, I just found myself sitting back and enjoying the ride. Moments like an acrimonious marital spat interrupted by a chase by killer electricity pylons, or Gladys going dimension hopping in a flouncy, bead studded 1920's ball gown and enormous furry boots, are just so wonderfully weird fun. Indeed, one very notable scene involving a truly unique conga set to a revolutionary game of Chinese whispers is one of the most magnificently mad pieces of magic I've ever read.

On the one hand, the plot wraps up in a somewhat usual way, with one character literally enlisting divine and regnal aid, instantly understanding the situation on the pentarchy and simply fixing what needs to be fixed. On the other, in the book’s final couple of hours, Wynne Jones introduces a real sense of jeopardy as the ladies of Lethe finally put in an appearance. Once again, it's much to Wynne Jones credit that after portraying a realistically muddled monastic male society interacting with some independent minded women, taking in the odd sleaze, or the hatefully hide bound high head, she now turns her attention to a matriarchy with its share of unpleasantness. In particular, Wynne Jones is one of the few writers who captures the idea of a group of women publicly humiliating and sexually denigrating a man as a precursor to actual abuse, albeit that with this still being Wynne Jones and staying on a comparatively light level, this abuse fortunately is avoided.

Of course, we finish with a big magical climax which pulls a lot of the plot's disparate threads together, the book’s villains either defeated or removed, the resolution of an on running magical mystery, the change in status for Arth, and even a sweet relationship into the bargain. While Zillah's desperate, unresolved love for Mark is a little odd given they don't interact during the book, at the same time, given what we learn of Mark towards the end, and the way Zillah and young Marcus relate to another complicated character, Zillah's feelings, and why this relationship didn't work previously are more than clear. Also, the fact that what we see of poor Mark's marriage is so awful, that I was just wanting him to end up with someone as nice as Zillah by the end anyway.

Wynne Jones was quite scathing about the sort of assumptions needed to write an adult novel, noting how children were far better at understanding complex plots, and that the sort of things she enjoyed writing about just would not work in an adult book. When I remember the way my Gran; born in the same generation as Wynne Jones, possessed an atavistic dislike of any kind of speculative fiction elements, referring to them as "silly", despite being a highly intelligent and well-read lady in other matters, I can understand what she was getting at. That being said, now that those who were children when this book was first published are now adults, in a very definitely post Harry Potter world, where adults can shamelessly read whatever speculative fiction they want; as in fact I do, it's actually a great shame Wynne Jones didn't write more books like this. Containing all of the wit, verve and quirkiness of any of her books for children, but dealing with some more mature themes; albeit in a primarily light hearted way, A Sudden Wild Magic is likely a book whose appeal has grown over the years. In particular, in a time when many people who are far more opinionated, and far less talented than Dianna Wynne Jones are pumping out too many works of speculative fiction with dour, simplistic depictions of the ways men and women relate to one another, a book like this stands out even more. After all, it's hardly insightful or uplifting to once again simply depict what happens to women in a barbarian horde. However depicting real men and women, even when a small group of women interact with a far larger group of men, and remembering that in fact most men are not part of a barbarian horde, and that some women can be pretty barbaric as well, is sadly, something that a lot of people these days seem to forget.

So, despite the fact that the plot gets a little too quickly shoved around by random magic at times, and despite the slightly overly large, if not actually plot irrelevant characters, I'd still absolutely recommend A Sudden Wild Magic, a book which unquestionably succeeds in being simply what Wynne Jones wanted it to be: a good story, and yet, in simply being a good story, for all its whimsical plot turns and sudden bursts of magic, actually has a few far more important things to say as well.

9/10 A bunch of horny magicians!

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