8.2.14 ALEX READS The Year of the Griffin

The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones

first read / library book / 178/178

The number of Diana Wynne Jones books I can read for the first time is rapidly dwindling, which is fairly terrible; but one of many good things about Diana Wynne Jones is that you can always read her again, because almost every single one of her books is infinitely re-readable.

Year of the Griffin I put off reading for a long age because I didn’t adore Dark Lord of Derkholm. I don’t know why, and I do adore the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which spawned it. I think it’s that DLoD is spotted with violence in a way that’s meant to be unnerving, except it unnerves me out of enjoying the book. That’s incredibly subjective, so everyone else should probably go read DLoD immediately.

Point one: Griffin sexuality is weird as heck.

Point two: Year of the Griffin is nothing like Dark Lord of Derkholm. Year of the Griffin is, like Witch Week, partially a critique of British schooling (in this case university) and partially an eventful and good-humored tumble through several interesting young people’s coming into their own.

In Dark Lord of Derkholm, a man with a plan and a demon wreaked havoc over the land with yearly hordes of fantasy-adventure enthusiasts (“tourists”), until he and his demon were overthrown. Eight years later, one of the wizard Derk’s children (a griffin) has started at wizard’s college. She’s in a class along with a number of other somewhat misfit young magical people, most of whom aren’t supposed to be there and some of whose magic has…hiccups. Jinxes and things. But they’re all smart and willing and just need something to jolt them out of their troubles and into KNOWLEDGE.

UNNNNNNNFORTUNATELY, everyone who works at the university was trained by people whose only concern was getting a lot of nominally competent wizards into the field for Chesney’s devastating Tours. So most of the faculty know next to nothing about magic. They also know next to nothing about teaching, so it’s a lot of harshly put down questions and BIG HEADINGS / LITTLE HEADINGS, and Wizard Corcoran REALLY wants to get to the moon but he is completely clueless. And their administrative bungling is directly responsible for waves of angry bandits and assassins and kings and murderous dwarf forgemasters and centurions.

The HEADINGS and the teachers who aren’t taught to anything but train for the exam and the general tendency of university administration to make everything as horrible as possible, beyond even the scope of their offices, is incredibly realistic, and DWJ makes it funny. You can tell that in real life it’s awful because DWJ usually gets the funniest right around the worst parts.

The best part, obviously, is the imminent arrival of a magical renaissance, in the hands of claws of the first year students, who all learn in the course of the book a lot about themselves and about their magic. (The magical problems of which are unsurprisingly personal and not just magical problems.) And it’s event after event, the whole way through, so there is no time to be bored and plenty of time to watch DWJ play one of her best self-acknowledged writer tricks–that is, to take a small idea and blow it up to its ultimate possibility, so it’s absurd and exciting and really does fill your book up with great stuff. She does that trick particularly well in this book.

One of the cultures in this world (from which one of the students comes) is a sort of generic fantasy Arab country, and this is just a statement of fact and preparation, because it made me somewhat uneasy but I couldn’t gauge its efficacy/appropriateness. If you happen to have an opinion on that I would love to hear it.

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3 thoughts on “8.2.14 ALEX READS The Year of the Griffin

  1. Good review and insights. That generic ‘Arab’ thing: we’re rightly sensitive about stereotypes, especially after recent history and current Middle East conflicts. I think, from what I remember, DWJ is here drawing on Arabian Nights tales rather as she drew on medieval epics for DLoD, and that’s full of subverted stereotypes. But yes, it can feel awkward — I felt uncomfortable in ‘Castle in the Air’ for that reason.

    • Yes, this is sort of what I was feeling about it–a friend of mine commented that she humanized the stereotypes, but did /use the stereotypes/. I think it may be a case of good intention that doesn’t quite live up to itself.

      (I would add that it’s much harder to successfully make use of and subvert stereotypes of this kind when it’s not your culture’s literature and you’re not the one being stereotyped.)

      • Yes, I do agree with your last comment particularly. It’s like it’s OK for Jewish comedians or female stand-ups to tell jokes about Jewish culture or women’s issues using stereotypes, less so for others. Self-deprecating humour good, outsider’s jokes bad…

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