On Me as a Reader, and The Game by Diana Wynne Jones

Part of why I keep this blog is my fascination with the process of reading, how reading engrosses readers, how I see myself in books (and assume others do the same). My interest in reading was cemented at a young age; my mother told me that, when I was about 6 or 7, I told her I wanted to be a reader when I grew up. Not a writer, mind you, but a reader. I did get interested in writing later, but in truth if someone would pay me to read all day, I'd do it. I'm good at it. I'm observant and easily hit fiction speeds of well over 100 pages per hour. Admittedly, as I write this, I see that my careers to date--librarian, professor--may be as close as I'll ever come to well-paid work that requires me to read.

My reading preferences change continuously, but occasionally I find a book that reminds me that there are landmarks in my tastes, like the following 2007 release....

The Game by Diana Wynne Jones

Whenever I see a new book by Diana Wynne Jones (despite her being one of my favorite authors, I always refer to her by her entire tripartite name--I'll use DWJ for brevity here), I am eager to dive in and just read. If you haven't read her work, I recommend Howl's Moving Castle for starters, The Lives of Christopher Chant next, and then what I consider to be her crowning achievement, The Dark Lord of Derkholm. She's so good at handling multiple characters in succinct language that you feel as if you have distinctive portraits rather than a crowd. And when she turns her formidable powers to multiple worlds, and the effects are stunning.

For me, there are few let-downs in DWJ's oeuvre, and when I find one, it usually tells me more about my taste than it does about her writing. I found one in Dogsbody, in which an apparently everyday dog turns out to actually be the star Sirius sent to earth on a quest. My disappointment stemmed from having to let go of the humorous pleasure of the everyday dog character and instead see him in a cosmic role. The Game held a similar disappointment.

First, let me say that the opening is great fun, as the protagonist, orphan-girl Hayley, is kicked out of her grandmother's house for mysterious reasons after frolicking in a parallel universe called the Mythosphere with a musician she calls Flute. The outcast Hayley is sent to Ireland, where she first meets her enormous brood of aunts and cousins. DWJ handles this with graceful aplomb. The mass of cousins blur a bit, but the aunts are utterly distinct, and the two cousins who become Hayley's closets allies, Harmony and Troy, are crisply drawn. The Game is led by eldest cousin Harmony and played among the children, who enter the Mythosphere unbeknownst to their aunts or grandparents, to retrieve golden apples, stars from Orion's belt, and other magical objects.

For me, the let-down comes because Hayley is not really a little girl at all, but a comet, Hayley's Comet I suppose, in the mythosphere. The years she spent at her grandparents' house (her grandfather is Atlas) were in fact eons, which explains for Hayley why her grandmother's discipline felt so unendingly confining.

The book is well-written, and especially fun to read for fans of Greek mythology, although Baba Yaga makes an appearance as do other characters from folklore. What I learn from this let-down experience, and that of Dogsbody, is something about myself. As a fantasy reader, I want my protagonist to be an ordinary person (or dog) in extraordinary circumstances. I want the magic to be near them, around them, even part of them, but I don't want dogs and little girls to turn out to be stars and comets. I find it revealing myself to realize that I lose interest once the protagonist could not, by any stretch of improbability, be "me." The puzzle doesn't seem worth solving if I have to sit back and watch a supernatural protagonist solve her troubles using levels of capability well beyond that of mere mortals.

It's more than disappointing, though, because I end up feeling deceived. I came to like the character under false pretenses, and once the trick is revealed, reading the rest of the book is more of a mechanical who-fits-where in mythology than it is a revealing and meaningful journey. After all, can stars and comets grow and learn like people? Is it any wonder that Hayley is able to rescue her parents, Merope and Sisyphus, from Jupiter's traps? She's a comet... what can't they do???

I prefer my protagonists to be more real than exceptional, more human than supernatural, and more flawed and capable of growth than remote and perfect.