Enchanted Glass isn’t a bad book. Were it not by Diana Wynne Jones (of whom I expect perfection, because she so regularly delivers it that not to do so would be to ignore all precedent), it’s even a book I’d be fairly excited about. The writing is competent, engrossing and pacey. The set up and the characters are well-drawn and interesting.
It’s simultaneously the most disappointing Diana Wynne Jones book I’ve read yet.
The book is really reminiscent of some of her other work. I don’t care much, but I suspect that must bug some people. The ‘distracted’ enchanter Andrew and his field of care and his ward/relation Aiden remind me a bit of Christopher and Cat Chant, down to the paired names. DWJ’s patented poor parent-child relationships come into play, as does the ‘made family’ solution she sometimes deploys (which I am never entirely convinced by, in her work), with its beneficent avuncular, grandparent or master and apprentice-ish relationships. The cast of assistants and villagers is a little Chrestomanci, but maybe primarily in that it seems very DWJ. She has a slightly Dickensian knack with personalities, creating something a little like the ‘cast of thousands’ she mocks in “Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream”. The plot arc, with its resolution at the fete, feels somewhat familiar (as does the conceit of the mirror/window/glass)–I want to say Eight Days of Luke, but suspect that’s not quite it. It’s a shame that the things this reminds me of, I like better.
So, what’s not working?
The characters make stupid decisions to make the climax work (why the ever-loving fuck are they at this fete?), which is a common fantasy malady, but not one very typical of the writer. The magic system is naturalistic and under-worked, and while I like the refusal to exposit, it can also be a bit frustrating. I don’t know what magical actions mean in this world, what alternative plot options are possible, what’s behind Andrew’s childhood amnesia–is that just supposed to be Freudian childhood amnesia, writ large? Did I miss something?
Andrew’s grandfather, the previous magic-user in charge of doing murky, unclear things to attain a murky, unclear ‘safety’ for the area he lives in, is presented as a lovely parental figure for Andrew. Then we’re told that he called Andrew’s secretary-cum-fiancée Stashe her father’s “silly little bitch” (p. 274) when she was young. At the end of the book, we’re further told that he slept with a teenage distant relation/daughter of a close friend, sent to live with him briefly while going through a rough patch. The hell? Is the reason his daughter wasn’t close to him something really sinister along these lines? I really don’t think that’s the book’s implication, but it’s where my mind jumps, given this strangeness about him and young women. Was DWJ both ill and thus not at her best and, at this point, so famous no editor pointed out that this sounds a bit like incest/abuse? Because you can have examinations of how abusive fucks can also be decent people or decent parents in other respects, and that’s what makes it harder, that’s what people from outside these backgrounds don’t get–but I don’t feel that’s where we’re going, here.
The relationship between Andrew and Stashe is economically drawn, but doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. I like Stashe! But what’s up with the offhand mentions of Andrew’s former fiancée/grad student? Such relationships can develop and be handled in an above board manner, but in the context of Andrew’s later second engagement with an employee, as well as his grandfather’s inappropriate relationships with young women, it looks odd. Also I wonder what the hell will Stashe and Andrew do/talk about? Couples aren’t a collection of shared hobbies, but Stashe and Andrew seem more like pleasant co-workers who are a bit attracted to one another and should maybe go out for coffee than people who should be getting married right now. It’s a bit hard to be pleased about a relationship you’re not sure is a decent idea yet, which will have a major effect on the life of a child who’s already lost all his other relatives–and the book wants you to be pleased.
The book is tonally awkward. It can’t really decide what age range it’s pitching to. It seems lost in a quite ambiguous time period (I’m thinking about the treatment of technology), and it displays a ‘kids these days with their telly and their bling’ crotchetiness. The last two make DWJ feel tired and dated, a vibe I never get from her otherwise!
The dog-boy thing is last-minute and under-developed. I think I need to know a bit more about the doubles. Not enough happens with the glass, or the chapel. It’s not her richest use of folklore either. The hell is up with Andrew’s vague, revelatory book/view of history? Reminds me of the Machine that they can’t get patented in Little Dorrit.
In true DWJ fashion (but worse than usual), the ending is a lump of ‘…wait what? Is that… over now, or?’
Let me stress: this is a decent book I’d be happy to see coming across my reviewer’s desk (I wish I had a desk, tbh) right now. It’s so freaking readable. DWJ makes it look easy, makes you think this is the standard every book should be performing to. I like the POV-shifting, though I know that bothers some people. I like Stashe, really all the characters. Creepy, funny, good imagery, interesting concept, great small moments in character and setting (The foster family! That coffee! And there again the war between the domestic Stocks!) etc. It’s not the DWJ I’d recommend as conversion-literature, but it’s quite something if this book is your off-day.