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Year of the Griffin
Diana Wynne Jones
Victor Gollancz, 218 pages


Jon Sullivan
Year of the Griffin
Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones was born in London, England. At an early age, she began writing stories for herself and her sisters. She received her Bachelor of Arts at St. Annes' College in Oxford and went on to to write full-time in 1965. She has won many awards and honours including the Carnegie Commendation for Dogsbody, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award twice, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Deep Secret
SF Site Review: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Diana Wynne Jones Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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My daughter, Sydnie, thinks Diana Wynne Jones's Year of the Griffin is better than Harry Potter. High praise, indeed, coming from someone who has ingested the work of J.K. Rowling to the point where it is part of her very soul.

It's no news that Jones is widely considered an unheralded forerunner of the Potter phenomenon, in particular for using a Wizards School setting for coming-of-age tribulations (although the fact that this is continually being pointed out actually ensures she receives due credit, at least critically). And if Jones hasn't, as a result, quite enjoyed Rowling's incredible financial success, perhaps she can take some solace in the recognition that she's often considered the better writer -- indeed, most recently she beat out Rowling for the Mythopoeic Award.

Now part of all this critical grumbling about how Jones has been overlooked may just be a backlash against Rowling's good -- and I would quickly add not undeserved -- fortune in penning an amazing blockbuster series. Besides, you know how lit-crit types hate anything that smacks of being popular. But when my 10 year old daughter who has read and reread the Potter volumes countless times -- and whose sensibilities represent the target market for YA fantasy -- proclaims this one of the best books she's read, you have to think she's on to something.

But if Jones is doomed to being shelved on the "If you like Harry Potter..." section, perhaps she can't be blamed for milking the association with yet another series of novels with the now familiar conceit of young apprentice Wizards at a school providing majors in the Magical Arts who band together to defeat an encroaching evil. Year of the Griffin is a sequel to The Dark Lord of Derkholm (with, you guessed it, hints of future installments) that, at first glance, appears to be not only simplistic, but a bit silly. However, like any good fable, there's much more going on here beneath the literal narrative surface. For one thing, Jones has managed to pack in all the evolving themes of the Potter books -- the insecurities of growing up, the perplexities and sometimes downright stupidities of adults, the perplexities of love and sexual attraction -- into a single volume and perhaps with more subtlety. And the evil portrayed here is not some one-dimensional super-being who epitomizes the concept of Evil with a capital "E," but rather the all too human qualities of hubris, ethnocentrism, and sheer stupidity.

Moreover, Jones's fast-paced plotting moves along with considerable doses of slapstick humour.

While the adults in Year of the Griffin are largely hapless and must depend on the young folk to sort things out for them -- a not uncommon conceit of YA literature -- Jones slyly underpins the action with some highly mature themes. A teacher with an unprofessional attraction to his female students, a self-centred headmaster more interested in his own research than teaching, the egotism and petty cruelty of academics who teach because they cannot do, the disillusionment when faith in an authority figure proves undeserved, the hypocrisy of politicians and soldiers who justify their destructive actions as being for the good of the state, the terror of hooligans who prey on the weak. All foregrounded against the general insecurity of adolescence. Yet portrayed with a light touch that keeps the reader turning pages, while subversively planting seeds for future contemplation.

Indeed, every chapter presents a cliffhanger, what with the prospect of invading assassins, armies of angered kings, and greedy dwarves, among others, all upsetting the "normal" events on campus. The use of multiple characters ensures readers can easily pick a favourite with which to identify. And because this is fantasy, after all, there is a happy ending, the resolution of which reminds me of how Shakespeare in his comedies manages to miraculously solve all the problems of the various lovers, along with a few political situations, in the final act. The ending also reveals the significance of the title.

Recommended for your kid, as well as the kid in you.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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