Unexpected Magic (Anthology)

Jones, Diana Wynne. Unexpected Magic (2004). 590 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $7.99

There are 16 stories here (fifteen of which are short stories, and one of which is a novella), all written by Diana Wynne Jones (which of course means that they’re fabulous). The highlight of the book is definitely the novella at the end, but all of the short stories are fun, and a bit witty with just a hint of magic. Of course, with a title like Unexpected Magic, one expects a lot of magic, and this book is certainly not disappointing. Despite the fact that the magic is entirely expected, it does find new and creative ways to manifest itself, ways which are certainly not what you thought they would be without feeling like a forced twist. For the sake of space, I’m attempting to keep the blurbs brief (bear with me where I fail.)

“The Girl Jones” is the book opener, and is a fun, autobiographical account of Jones as a nine-year old, who is known as “The Girl Jones” because she is the most notorious of her family. It all starts on a sunny day when word gets out that she’s watching younger siblings for the older (through no fault of her own; they just get dumped on her). They go on an Adventure, and Jones harmlessly avoids ever having to watch children again.

“Nad and Dan adn Quaffy” (as well as “Enna Hittins”) made me giggle far too much for my own good. I’ve always been a bit crazy,* but when I’m reading (or writing) a story, I find myself imagining the lives of the characters outside the pages. Because of this (mildly crazy) habit of mine, these stories did not require me to suspend my disbelief very much. I was genuinely interested in the idea of holy-crap-my-character’s-gone-real, and I felt like both stories did a great job working with the concept in different ways.

I didn’t really enjoy either “The Plague of Peacocks” or “The Master,” though I’m not sure I can exactly explain why. I think with “The Plague of Peacocks,” my issue lies with the way that Mrs. Platt deals with pets. Daniel Emmanuel is a fun character who really stands out, but I don’t think he can truly save the story. “The Master” was a little too wonky, and a little too apt to lead me to strange conclusions which I did not really like. They weren’t bad, exactly (I don’t believe Diana can write a bad story), I just did not enjoy them as much as most of the other stories in this book.

“The Girl Who Loved the Sun”  reminds me of Peter Himmelman (a musician) who plays this song “Larry’s a Sunflower Now,” which we’ve been playing at work. The song is about a boy named Larry who plants his feet in the ground and tries to be a sunflower until he becomes one, and then his mom is sad. The story follows a similar theme. I thought it was a bit sad, and wished that it had ended differently.

“The Fluffy Pink Toadstool” and “Auntie Bea’s Day Out” both made me laugh. They were both incredibly silly, and fun, and made me want to read more. In “Auntie Bea’s Day Out,” an annoying Aunt takes her nieces and nephews (who are all much smarter than her) on a day to the seaside which goes a bit sideways when she angers a magical island. “The Fluffy Pink Toadstool” is a different sort of silly, with as the title suggests, a pink toadstool.

When everyone came down in the morning, still tasting wild onions, the floor of the living room was a mass of fluffy pink. Fluffy pink had grown up the walls and was just meeting in the middle of the ceiling around the light. Fluffy pink had begun to spread to the kitchen. That was when Father put his foot down. Mother, he said, was welcome to any daft ideas she wanted. But she was to have them on her own.

“Carruthers” is a bit strange. It’s about a walking stick, and a Proper Family. “The Green Stone” is about Heroes gathering for a Quest, and how they retaliate when their grand Quest is canceled. “The Fat Wizard” is mostly about a big dumb wizard and a girl with quite the knack for magic. Also, some pigs. These three were all rather surreal, and did not make a huge impression after the fact. I enjoyed them while I was reading them, but they were not necessarily as outstanding as the rest of the stories in the volume.

“What the Cat Told Me” & “Little Dot” are both from a cat’s point of view, and both cats are entangled with some magic. Other than that, they are very different stories. “What the Cat Told Me” is a frame story, which opens with a cat enjoying “your” lap, and ends with the same cat. The middle is the fascinating part, about the Cat, the Boy, Good Thing, and the Old Man. The Old Man is a selfish magician who keeps the Boy and the Cat to help out with his spells now and then. The Cat and Good Thing ultimately save the Boy from the Old Man, but not before the Cat is cursed. “Little Dot” is about a cat named Turandot– called “Little Dot” for short– and the adventures Henry (her magician) has. She is a very clever cat, and at first objects to the fact that her Henry keeps bringing home other cats. Eventually, she gets used to the idea, and the other cats come in handy when she has to save Henry from trouble.

“No One” is about the robot No One (because he was No. One in a series), and Edward, the boy he is supposed to care for. Unfortunately for No One, the other household appliances (which are completely sentient by 2084 AD) have a grudge against him. He is also told that he must care for Edward, despite not quite knowing what that entails. This story comes across as both hilarious and sweet as No One learns to think.

“Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” is another multiple-worlds story. I hesitate to say that it’s part of the same Multiverse as we came across in Deep Secret, or in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci , but it operates upon a similar theme. Siglin lives on a planet where men outnumber women three-to-one, so it is a polygamous matriarchy. Siglin’s mother has three husbands, and rules her homestead (and husbands) with a firm hand, so Siglin is shocked when she learns that there is something her mother cannot protect her from.

“Everard’s Ride” is the novella at the end of the anthology, and it felt perfect. It wasn’t stretched beyond itself into a novel, and it wasn’t crushed into short story format. Alex and Cecelia find themselves pulled into the political intrigue of a magical kingdom that they never knew existed. There is a lot of misunderstanding, some running and chasing, some fighting, and some romance. The whole thing is absolutely brilliant, and leaves you both satisfied and longing for more at the end. It was a solid choice to end the volume, and would have been worth it on its own.

The Quick Version:

Read it. (Rating: 5/5)

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Via a chain of links (from one blog to another blog to another blog, and finally to a livejournal post), it has come to my attention that Diana Wynne Jones is struggling with lung cancer, and per her editor, may appreciate notes from fans. There is an address available to send letters to, if you’re interested.

Diana Wynne Jones
c/o Greenwillow Books
10 E. 53rd St.
New York, NY 10022

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* Probably something to do with being an only child and having nothing but my imagination to play with, some days. I lived in the middle of nowhere, and spent a lot of time by myself, surrounded by mud and trees. When that’s all you’ve got, you frequently find yourself adventuring with your favorite characters, and imagining them like they’re real. Did anyone else do this?

This book is part of the Short Story Reading Challenge!

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10 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Children's Fiction, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Humor, Romance, Sci-Fi, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

10 responses to “Unexpected Magic (Anthology)

  1. bethanyasouza

    I definitely was the weird kid in the neighborhood who used to play in my imaginary land. Only child and also lived in a po-dunk town. And yes, we are a little bit crazy.

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  2. I’ve never really written a fan letter before, but DWJ has given me so much that I really want to thank her.

    I haven’t read this collection yet, but I will for sure.

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    • I wrote a fan letter once, to Robin McKinley, and I got a very genuine reply. I tried not to gush too much, or sound like too much of a fanatic, and I think I pulled it off.

      I’m working on a letter for DWJ, but… it takes some time for me to feel satisfied with it. I nitpick it and rewrite it several times until I come up with something I feel comfortable mailing, and that often results in something acceptable.

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  3. I can’t remember how Mrs. Platt does deal with pets – is it that she takes them to be euthanized? That’s my vague memory, and I remember identifying with it strongly. There was a guy in my neighborhood as a kid (thankfully he lived way down the street and couldn’t get my cat) who used to catch cats and take them to the pound. Not stray cats, people’s pet cats, with tags on! If they wandered into his yard he’d capture them and take them away to be euthanized. He was a terrible old man.

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    • Yeah, she euthanizes them and then lectures the owners on taking better care of their pets. (Which in my book makes her a monster all on its own)

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  4. Excellent review.
    I found you through my own blog (you wrote a very kind comment on my ‘All the Pretty Horses’ review – so I’ve spent the morning reading big chunks of your blog!

    You’re very accomplished at summing up story-lines and plots in a consice way. I need more practise doing this, as the ‘synopsis’ sections of my reviews tend to waffle on, and on, and on…

    Also, you’ve inspired me to read more shorter fiction. I’m always intimidated by the thought of reading several stories by the same author all in one go…maybe I’m afraid of ‘narrative oveload’ – to coin a phrase (admittedly a bad one :S).

    Speaking of waffling on and on, I’m doing it here…so I’m off to read more of your blog now.

    Tomcat.

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    • Well thank you for taking time to read (and the time to post, even if you felt a bit waffle-y by the end.)

      I have to admit that I work rather hard to create a synopsis which doesn’t give everything away. Sometimes, I want to rant (or gush) about the end, and I find myself worrying about spoiling the book for others (except in the case that it’s a terrible book, at which point I’m more than happy to spoil it and save others from wasting their time.)

      The trick with anthologies is to take it slow. Read a story, put the book down, walk away. Maybe grab a snack, move to a new bench in the park, go to work, come home from work, whatever. When you read too many short stories smushed back-to-back, they start to blend in your head and you may truly experience narrative overload.

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  5. fatum

    i didn’t read this book do u think i’m going to like it?

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    • It’s hard to say for sure if someone will like it. If you like fantasy stories, and/or short fiction, you’ll probably like at least one story from this book.

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