FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Adrian Tchaikovsky on Diana Wynne Jones
When I was very young I wasn’t actually the bookish type. Star Wars was my big formative influence, and I was very late coming to the joy of books. I’m in the same position right now with my own son, who can read fine, he just doesn’t enjoy it or want to do it of his own notion, which is a constant worry, and I can only hope he’ll find his own spark that lights up the work of literature for him.
For me, that spark came directly out of the SF that I watched so avidly on the screen. Not the Star Wars novels (though I remember being thoroughly baffled by Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, a pre-Empire book that killed off Darth Vader) but another tie-in altogether. Specifically, the Target Doctor Who novelizations. I was a big Whofan, but I only tuned in from Tom Baker’s 'The Invisible Enemy' onwards (and watched religiously from then on) and so there were three and a half doctors worth of stuff that I was never (insofar as anyone could have predicted) going to see. However, Target had my back, with dozens and dozens of concise little novels, mostly written by the actual screenwriters like Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. I beetled on down to the library every week to get the next one, or to re-read an old one if there wasn’t one I hadn’t seen, and that is where my joy in reading fiction comes from.
The other big influence was a writer I ran into when I’d crossed over to secondary school (US high school?). There I discovered Diana Wynne Jones. No single writer has ever made such an impression on me. Jones is well known as a writer for all ages, and perhaps most celebrated for Howl’s Moving Castle, which became a very pleasant (albeit quite different from the book) Studio Ghibli movie a long time later. However, I didn’t read that one (the school library didn’t have it). I’m going to go hipster and say that the books that blew my mind around age 13 or so are two of Jones’ least well known ones. Homeward Bounders and Power of Three. Bounders took the concept of the portal fantasy (familiar from Narnia if nothing else) and cranked it up to eleven, with the juvenile hero cast from his home world to wander between dozens of others at the whim of a conspiracy of shadowy game players. It plugged right into my love of RPGs (the Dragonlance books were also a big favourite at the time), had a wicked twist at the end, and just had more sheer scope than anything I’d read before. It riffed on a number of concepts that I wanted to know more about – the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman and Prometheus all feature in various forms – so I went off and broadened my mind because of it. It’s a book I still go back and re-read every so often, just because it’s so much fun.
Jones’s second big input into my young life, Power of Three, should definitely be better known. It’s a fantasy that is the first real study of identity and the other that I’d come across. After all, fantasy was then, and is now, a genre where it’s easy to draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are the heroes; they are orcs, robots, zombies, stormtroopers, demons or some other readily reviled class of instrinctically bad bad guys. Power of Three plays all sorts of games with who ‘we’ are, and I’m going to have to be careful not to spoil the hell out of it because it is a book worth tracking down and reading. The heroes are from a tribal culture with a bit of magic and a whole load of traditions (and that was another big thing I took away from it – the presentation of multiple rounded, well-thought-out cultures), and they have an enemy who they believe to be evil – the enemy are scaly and aquatic and can change shape, so naturally they’re bad. And then there are the giants, who are also bad, but stupid and easily tricked. And so obviously the protagonists’ culture are the us and the rest are the them, and... Except it’s not. Not only is it not that simple, it’s not even that simple, because whilst the book pulls one rug out from under us when we get to know the fishy shapechangers a bit, there’s a whole extra giant-sized rug waiting to the yanked later on in the book...
As a child, I always had an affinity with the inhuman and the underdog species – I think it’s fair to say that, insofar as I am known, I am known as the insect and spider guy, and that was something that started very early on. Power of Three was the book that legitimised my feelings that the creepy and the clammy could still have their own heroic stories, and that, I suspect, led to the insect-kinden of Shadows of the Apt, the spider civilization of Children of Time and the misadventures of poor Nth in Spiderlight.
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Children of Time was released in paperback this week. Click the cover for an exclusive extract, or head over to Adrian's blog to find out more.