Hexwood, by Diana Wynne Jones

HexwoodTitle: Hexwood
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Series/Standalone: Standalone
Genre: Science Fiction and Fantasy
First Published: 1993
Edition Reviewed: 2000
Hb/Pb: Paperback
Price: £9.99 (RRP), used prices on Amazon Market Place start from £1.50 at time of posting

Following the passing of Diana Wynne Jones at the end of last month, I wanted to honour her memory by rereading some of my favourite of her books, and I’d like to review them here, so I can share them with you and urge you to go enjoy these wonderful gifts she left for the world. Hexwood is one of her very best – maybe the best, although she has so many wonderful works that it is hard to choose. Rereading it this week has been a true pleasure and a real solace. I hope I can convince you to go read it, too.

A powerful intergalactic corporation runs more than half the galaxy. It is ruled by five sinister and powerful Reigners, from the House of Balance. But Earth is a backwater, valuable only for its precious flint, which even those in the know believe to be exported only for road rubble. When a message arrives on the desk of the sector controller for Albion from a small Earth installation called ‘Raynor Hexwood’ it isn’t taken seriously, at first – it looks like a joke. Some clerk has set off an old machine stored there with the apparent purpose of using it to play fantasy football with great figures from history and legend: ‘King Arthur in goal, Julius Ceasar for striker, Napoleon midfield’. It sounds ridiculous, and surely nothing important could have been stored out there in the sticks!

But it has – something very important and very powerful indeed. The machine set off by Harrison Scudamore is one ‘Bannus’. It is capable of creating a field of ‘theta-space’ wherein leaders can be aided in decision-making by being thrown into live-action scenes, which are played over and over again in multiple scenarios until the right course of action is reached. It’s a very powerful machine, and very dangerous – all information about it is maximum security. And the machine is clearly doing more than creating fantasy football. The moment it was turned on it started drawing power and expanding its field. If it isn’t stopped, it could do so indefinitely.

Steadily, more and more people are drawn to Earth to investigate and try to stop the Bannus, including the Reigners’ Servant, Mordion Agenos – a man in some ways more feared than the Reigners themselves. Tall and deathlike in appearance, he can kill with thought alone.

Ann Stavely is a teenage girl living on the Hexwood Estate. Whilst kept home from school by illness, she watches with curiosity as a series of oddly dressed figures enter Hexwood Farm, but don’t appear to leave. She talks about these curious people with her four imaginary friends: the King, the Prisoner, the Slave, and the Boy. The odd thing is that all four of them recognise a symbol of unbalanced scales on the side of a van in which some of the people arrive. They recognise it, and they fear it. Ann hadn’t expected this – it’s almost like they’re real people with minds of their own.

At the urging of her imaginary friends, Ann enters the wood next to the farm in the hopes of climbing a tree to investigate. When she does so, she finds an emaciated Mordion, frightening in appearance. He believes he has spent hundreds of years in a stass-tomb, but Ann knows he entered Hexwood farm just a few days ago. He persuades her to help manipulate the field of the Bannus to create a child, Hume, who might grow up to help fight the Reigners.

Over the next few days Ann visits them many times, but something is very odd. Time passes strangely in Hexwood. Many years seem to pass between one visit and the next, and then suddenly it can seem to be several years in the past. There’s a mystery here and she must find out what it is so that she can help Hume, for whom she feels responsible, and also Mordion, about whom an unspeakable sadness hangs, which she cannot fathom.

Is it any good?
Are you kidding? This book is stonking. The central idea is captivating and original. As the plot jumps about in time it could be an impenetrable mess, but Diana Wynne Jones is a master of the craft and she somehow strikes a balance that grants both delightful readability and a suspense born of layer upon layer of mystery.

For a YA novel, the cast of characters is truly staggering, and yet they all have a light and life of their own, rich in motivations, secrets, depths, and foolishness, as their natures require. Ann is a wonderful protagonist – her sense of humour and adventure, her intelligence and her impatience all playing their roles. I wish I could have read this as a teenager – I owe a great deal to characters like Anne McCaffrey’s Menolly (from her Dragonriders of Pern books), but it would have done me some good to have a more optimistic role-model like Ann to look up to.

My favourite character, though, has to be Mordion. I do like me a good bit of angst, and Mordion’s pain is painted with a light touch that lingers in the background and builds, without undermining the character’s power and charisma. Admittedly, he’s cut from the same cloth as so many Diana Wynne Jones heroes – a powerful man with a secret (usually dark or sad) who is basically good at heart, but may have done some regrettable things. Yet, although I can’t help but see the similarities to Howl, or Chrestomanci, or Thomas Lynn, they are all undeniably very different characters, each with their own flaws and talents. Each has a unique appeal, and I recommend them all, but for darkness and pain Mordion must win the prize.

This book is also a delight for those who like mythic references and folklore. Most are Arthurian, but readers will be pleased to see some connections to Beowulf, too.

Overall, Hexwood is a sheer pleasure to read. Diana Wynne Jones books are always a sort of mental equivalent of comfort food, for me. Some are fluff, and some are real sustenance. This is the latter. Read it. You won’t regret it.