Year of the Griffin
by Diana Wynne Jones
This sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm
is shorter and somewhat lighter than its predecessor. It's what the first year at Hogwarts might be like in Diana Wynne Jones' world. Instead of a wizard prep school, though, it's the Wizard University of which Querida is the high chancellor. But she is busy restoring their world to what it should be like after 8 years without the tours. And the older wizards, who were all in charge of things during the era of the tours, have retired. So the running of the university has fallen to younger wizards who were brought up through an educational system tailored toward the "practical magic user" demanded by the tours. Unfortunately, they are out of touch with magical theory and any sense of innovation or research in wizardry.
The University is also pretty hard up for money, which is what sets the plot rolling. For the chairman of the faculty, Wizard Corkoran (whose private ambition is to be the first man to walk on the moon) has decided to send a letter to the parents of all students, begging for donations so they can fix the roof, etc. For the six students in his first-year tutorial, however, this proves inconvenient.
One of them is Elda, the youngest of the griffin children of Derk and Mara; her father still disapproves of the university, and doesn't actually know she's there. The next is Lukin, son of King Luther of Luteria, a very poor northern kingdom that was ravaged by the tours, whose father also doesn't know he's at the University and doesn't want him to be a wizard. Then there's Olga, who is wanted by her pirate/gangster father for stealing part of his treasure. He also wants her to stay at home and help with the family business. And Felim, whose brother is a ruthless eastern Emir who has sworn to send assassins to kill him if he goes to the University. And Claudia, half-sister of the Emperor of the Southern Empire, whose brother Titus likes her well enough, while the Senate wants her dead; and Ruskin, a low-caste dwarf who has run away to study magic in order to help throw off the tyranny of the higher castes, who will also try to have him captured and executed.
Each of these students has a special gift, but some of their gifts are a little twisted by jinxes, including Lukin's tendency to inadvertently create deep pits, Claudia's trouble making any spell turn out right (and for a while, she is also followed around by a hat rack that is magically connected to her), Olga's trouble with causing horrible monsters to appear, and the fact that whenever Felim's life is in danger, he finds himself suddenly encased in a cocoon of books.
The trouble that breaks out because of the fundraising letters, unwisely sent to their families, is predictable yet also very entertaining. The six friends pull together to protect Felim from assassins and to save Olga from pirates. They work together to survive an attack by renegade griffins (no relation to Elda), they save Claudia from the Senators and Ruskin from the forgemasters, and when finally confronted by the armies of Luteria, the Empire, and the Emir, they manage (with a little outside help) to settle everything nicely. Most exciting, I think, is when their attempt to help Wizard Corkoran go to the moon turns into a hair-raising trip to Mars for Corkoran, all six friends, and Kit and Blade as well. Plus you can delight to a story so full of fun and outlandish adventure that it contains dialogue like this:
"It's only orange juice," he said. "Tell me who you are and what you think you're doing here, and I'll let you out."
"No," said the intruder. "My lips are sealed by oath. But you can't let me drown in orange juice. It is not a manly death."
Jones' ideas about magic are a little more developed than those of JK Rowling. There are gods, demons, pentagrams, and candles involved, so be advised in accordance with whatever you consider the line between acceptable fantasy and the occult. I still think it falls on the acceptable side, but there's a bit more room for debate on that than in the case of Harry Potter (which, IMHO, only bigots who haven't read the books would consider worthy of burning).
DWJ's Wizard University is also a bit more mature than Hogwarts, having a college-aged student body with all the drinking and romance and grown-up mischief that goes with it. The students' life isn't quite as regimented as that at Hogwarts, and they live more in the normal world (with a rowing crew, a university choir, table tennis, fencing team, etc. as extracurricular activities). And they don't take their teachers quite as seriously as Harry and his friends take their Hogwarts teachers.
The head teacher, Corkoran, is only a marginally better wizard than Gilderoy Lockhart. Wizard Wermacht, at the low end of the faculty pecking-order, is arrogant, pathetic, gloomy, and an incompetent fool; he is like a much less capable Professor Snape. Dried-up old Querida is a very powerful female wizard for the forces of good, but she really has no conscience; and sometimes her physical fragility seems more significant than her magical powers. When Wizard Finn isn't trying to steal away another man's wife, he seems to be fooling around with pretty female students. Wizard Myrna is sidelined by pregnancy, Wizard Dench (the bursar) has little time to think of anything except fund raising, and Wizard Umberto is so shy and quiet that no one really knows what he does.
The best teachers turn out to be Kit, Blade, a pile of out-of-circulation library books recommended by Derk, a griffin from overseas named Flury who shows up in the middle of the book, a statue of the University's founder, Wizard Policant, which sometimes talks. (Kit and Blade, by the way, during the 8-year interval between the two stories, became two of the four most powerful wizards in the world.)
There are two further lessons to be learned from this book: (1) don't mess around with talking pigeons, and (2) don't take your anger out on innocent cows.
Recommended Age: 14+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.