Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold"

One of my top three favorite writers, Diana Wynne Jones, died recently.  She was 76 years old and had been fighting lung cancer for over a year.  It's sad to think that we will have no more of her books, but at least her reputation is assured.  Aside from the slight problem of no one having heard of her.  I wrote about her books on my old blog.

For some reason the book that I found myself turning to is a favorite, but not the favorite of her works.  Maybe reading my favorite one (Fire and Hemlock) would be too sad.  Instead I picked up A Tale of Time City.

Time City exists outside of time.  The inhabitants can travel to any time period, and they keep records of all human history.  They also sell information to people who live 'in history," such as weather forecasts, and arrange family reunions in Time City, where you can meet your ancestors and your descendants.  For a fee, of course.

Time City is a peaceful place, but it has a problem.  The technology that keeps the city separate from the rest of time and space was created so long ago that nobody remembers how it works, and now it appears to be breaking down.  But that's not where the book starts:
The train journey was horrible.  There was a heat wave that September in 1939, and the railway authorities had fastened all the windows shut so that none of the children packed onto the train could fall out.  There were several hundred of them, and nearly all of them screamed when they saw a cow.  They were being sent away from London from the bombing, and most of them had no idea where milk came from.
One of the children on that train is eleven-year-old Vivian Smith.  Her parents are sending her to stay with a relative she's never met before. She's terrified . . . but she "had thought of every single thing that possibly could go wrong except the one that actually did."  Suddenly she finds herself in Time City, kidnapped by two boys who believe she's the key to repairing their technology. Vivian swears she knows nothing about it.  But does she?

I don't know why I like this book so much.  (Incidentally, Jones herself was only five when World War II broke out, but according to Wikipedia she was also evacuated from London.)  Probably it's the way she keeps the suspense going continually, while at the same time throwing in all kinds of little world-building details, like when the boys decide to give Vivian a bedroom that will make her feel at home, and put her in the Ancient Egyptian suite.  Her characters for the most part muddle through - I do enjoy books where nobody knows what they're doing.  Or maybe it's the fact that there are no cows in Time City or in London.

As a writer Diana Wynne Jones did have one flaw, and that was endings.  Even in her published works it took her a while to get the hang of an ending.  In this book it's not so much the ending itself that bothers me as the explanation.  I believe that I understand how it all worked, but the explanation given by the characters makes no sense at all.  (There's actually a typo near the end, which makes me think that whole passage was affected by an editing glitch.)  But that just goes to show what a good writer she was, in my opinion, that even with this flaw her books are still wonderful.

The title of this post is a quote from Milton; it doesn't appear in the book but it is definitely related.  Rest in peace, Diana.

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