The late and much lamented Diana Wynne Jones is popular enough in fantasy lit circles that she’s often referred to only by her initials as DWJ, much as my scifi geek friends talk about JMS. She’s written so much that I’m chipping slowly away at her library of books at the rate of one or two a year. This one I picked up because Stephanie at Views from the Tesseract recommended it, and because it’s not part of a series.
A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow Books, 1987.
It’s 1939, and young Vivian Smith is on a train filled with other London evacuees, headed for her unknown aunt’s house. Then, at the train station, she’s kidnapped by two boys, clever and pigtailed Jonathan and butter pie-obsessed Sam, and taken to Time City. Time City (if I understand it correctly) is built outside of regular time on its own unmoving bit, but oversees all the various Eras and tries to keep them from going unstable. Jonathan and Sam are convinced that Vivian will one day become the famous Time Lady, and that by catching her at a critical younger moment, they’ll be able to stop Time City itself from becoming unstable.
Vivian of course doesn’t believe she is, but now she’s stuck in Time City, pretending to be their cousin Vivian, who should already know how Time City works. There are elaborate ceremonies, the funny pajamas that everyone wears, robots, school, and the complicated stretch of history centuries before and after anything she’s learned of before. Everything is bewildering, but it looks like Time City is really in danger and none of the adults will believe it. Vivian, Jonathan and Sam need to figure out what’s going on and who’s behind it before Time City falls apart and all of history is altered forever, stranding Vivian apart from her parents.
As usual, DWJ writes vivid characters in a detailed world, with a plot that started fast and got faster. I liked that the major family in Time City, to which both Jonathan and his cousin Sam belong, are Lees of Asian extraction, now diluted with much mixing to indeterminate coloring with vaguely Asian eyes. However, the structure of Time City and the eras that so confuses Vivian was pretty confusing for me, too – maybe it’s just my chronic lack of sleep, but I’d need to reread this and try harder to get a grasp on everything. It’s not really necessary to understand it all the way to enjoy it, though, and I’m guessing that kids would be a little more flexible in their thinking than me. I’d say this is good for middle grade through middle school, and especially good for those who’ve outgrown the Magic Tree House books and want something more sophisticated with the same element of travel to lots of different periods in history.
Yeah, I liked the idea of this one, but it’s not one of my favorite DWJ books at all. It never quite pulls together the way her best do, in my opinion.
And you’re right about the initial thing! The Queen’s Thief fans do it with Megan Whalen Turner too (MWT).
I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one not completely in love with this one… but at least a not-so-good book by a very good writer is still quite good!