My first intro to Diana Wynne Jones was years ago on one of those melodramatic summer days in NYC when it gets so hot you’re not sure you’ll make it. The Sunshine Cinemas saved me. I dragged myself inside with no clue what Howl’s Moving Castle was about – just hoping it would last till sun down. I loved the film, but remained ignorant that it was based on a book written by a certain children’s author who many list in their top 10.
It wasn’t until Diana Wynne Jones passed away in March 2011 that I realized she’d written so many of the books constantly referenced by great authors. I’m starting with Hexwood because the cover reminds me of Firefly and I really miss that show.
Four thousand years ago it was felt that the great Reigner houses on Homeworld would destroy one another unless they were controlled by the strongest possible rulers.
They were right.
The story begins with Ann sick in bed watching strange people enter the old Hexwood farm across the street, but never leave. Something funny is going on. Funnier still is that her four imaginary friends are starting to talk back. Ann sets out to investigate and meets Mordian, a wizard who wants her help in defeating the Reigners, an other-worldly superpower cheating the planet of its natural resources without giving fair compensation. (Sounds familiar, sort of like Shell Oil in West Africa.)
With Ann’s permission, Mordian makes use of her blood and his own to create a person, who is to grow up to do Mordian’s dirty work – defeat the reigners. A boy named Hume forms from their blood, and then Mordian lies back down and goes to sleep. Hexwood wouldn’t be a very good book if that were the end, unless of course you like downer fiction, which most children don’t.
On her next visit, Ann sees that Mordian had a change of heart and is raising his little killer. She also learns that the woods are enclosed by the Bannus, a force field of sorts that distorts time, memory and logic. She and Mordian try not to think about the fact that Hume isn’t real, that if he ever leaves the bannus he will cease to exist. Trouble is that Hume reads minds so he already knows Mordian’s darkest thoughts.
The Bannus may be the best part of the whole story. It works as part magic and part math. Each person that it pulls in gives it another set of possibilities to work with. There’s also a backwards love story that spans worldS and timeS, two nouns we should use in the plural form more often.
The structure of this story is very clever. You can try to keep track of all the twists, but then you’ll be just as confused as some of the characters. While reading page by page, I felt more distant from the characters than I like to feel, but this distance is imposed intentionally. The further you are from any one part, the more complete your bird’s eye view is of the whole.
It’s fitting that the Banus is rooted in the woods, apart from everything that is useless in the day-to-day. The woods are a timeless place that remind you of your gut instinct for survival, however deep it’s buried:
The woods;…part of the great forest that once covered this land. At the nearest nudge it forms its own theta-space… Ask any Earthman. He will tell you how … he has been lost in the smallest spinney. He can hear traffic on the road, but the road is not there.
Hexwood is the kind of book almost any child would adore. It gets a little mind boggling as realities collide, but the puzzle comes together and you feel smarter for reading it. Also there are dragons.