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Review of the book I read on July 28th.

Joan Aiken, over the course of a long and illustrious career, wrote so many books that I have lost track of them, but is probably best known among my acquaintance for the Dido Twite series, a YA alternate-universe Victorian-era-except-she-didn't-reign fantasy romp that charms everyone else much more than it charms me. She also wrote Gothics, which I haven't read.

My problem with Joan Aiken is an unusual one, so unusual that it took me some time to identify it. I realized immediately that I found her work boring, but I couldn't figure out why, because on the surface it is just the sort of thing I ought to like.

The problem is that we think the same way. Someone will mention a plot point in one of her novels, and I will say 'but that was so dull, it was obvious that that was going to happen from page six', and the person will stare at me. And after several years it became obvious that it is not that her plots are predictable, it is that it is always what I would have done if I were plotting the book, and so I expect it and therefore find it predictable.

Therefore I have kept reading Joan Aiken, because on two separate occasions now I have run across things of hers which do do exactly what I would have done in the circumstances, but which are so much more impressively executed than I was expecting that I know they are better than I could have done them. And that is a rare treasure, if you have ever run into someone who thinks the same way you do, to get to see them do something better sharper shinier more. It gives the reading effect of eucatastrophe: I thought this would be the same old thing, but it isn't. It is almost as pleasant as surprising oneself.

The first of the two Joan Aiken things I like is The Stolen Lake, which I will defend against all comers as the most insane Arthurian novel ever written, and desperately treasure. I don't want to tell you anything else about it. It is too gloriously weird.

The second is the short story 'The Land of Trees and Heroes', which, as it is an Armitage family story, has been reprinted by Small Beer Press in this collection, The Serial Garden, along with all the other Armitage stories.

The deal with the Armitages is that, while they were on their honeymoon, Mrs. Armitage worried that their life might be boring, and wished for magical and exceptional things to happen to them. But only-- well, mostly-- on Mondays, so as not to make too much of a mess. The first and seminal Armitage story, which Aiken wrote at the age of sixteen (it reads as though she'd been a pro for decades) is called 'Yes, But Today Is Tuesday', in which the Armitage children inform their parents that there is a unicorn in the garden and this is incredibly confusing and upsetting because it is, in fact, Tuesday. The world has therefore slipped its natural courses. Unicorns are fine on Mondays, but Tuesday is just beyond the pale...

At their best, the Armitage stories, which Aiken wrote throughout her multi-decade career, walk a thin and lovely balance between the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are taken completely for granted and the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are, well, extremely peculiar. The Armitages are perfectly capable of dealing with anything whatsoever, as long as it happens on a Monday and everyone gets turned back into their natural shapes before teatime. This must have been an influence on Diana Wynne Jones, I can't see it not being.

At their worst, the stories fall off one side or the other of that tightrope. When everyone is too blasé about magic, there's little sense of danger, and when they're too confused, there's little sense of the unflappability that really makes the humor. But at least half the stories do walk that line adequately.

And 'The Land of Trees and Heroes' throws in the numinous. It is, as far as I can tell, an Armitage retelling (with alterations) of At the Back of the North Wind, without the bad poetry and Victorian philosophizing. It's funny (there is one segment that makes me laugh every single time), mythic, odd, pragmatic, and manages to feel nothing at all like E. Nesbit (which, by virtue of subject matter, it should; I love E. Nesbit but sometimes she is a magnetic force).

So I bought the collection for that one story, really, but it is a good collection, a good read-aloud book for a rainy night, full of wizards who practice eminent domain, church fetes to buy new wands for retired fairies, and the unicorns eating the azaleas. And, thank heaven, it is never, ever twee; sometimes flat, but never over-sentimental, purple, or treacly.

Maybe in another decade or so I'll run into another Joan Aiken I like.

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