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Old School Wednesdays Readalong: Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones

For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.

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Archer's Goon Archer's Goon

Title: Archer’s Goon

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Publisher: Greenwillow
Publication date: First published 1984
Paperback: 324 pages

The trouble started when Howard Sykes came home from school and found the “goon” sitting in the kitchen. He said he’d been sent by Archer. But who was Archer? It had to do with the 2,000 words that Howard’s author father had failed to deliver. It soon became clear not only that Archer wanted those words, but that his wizard siblings, Hathaway, Dillian, Shine, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus, would also go to any lengths to get them.

Although each wizard ruled a section of the town, he or she was a prisoner in it. Each suspected that one of them held the secret behind the words, and that secret was the key to their freedom. Which one of them was it? The Sykes family become pawns in the wizards’ fight to win their freedom, wrest control from one another, and fan out to rule the world.

Diana Wynne Jones skillfully guides the reader through a riveting, twisty plot, with satisfying surprises at every amazing turn. An exciting science fiction adventure where, happily, nothing is what it first seems to be.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print & Ebook

REVIEW & DISCUSSION

Ana’s take: Diana Wynne Jones’ books are comfort reads to me so I was super happy to see that Archer’s Goon was the next Readalong pick. On the whole, this was a really satisfying read from the get go because even though this appeared to be simply a weird story about megalomaniac magicians and the unsuspecting family that gets mingled in their affairs, I had an inkling that there was more to it than originally suspected. Then this proved to be true and everything fell into place. That’s when the careful construction of the story becomes clear.

I appreciated how Archer’s Goon is a funny book albeit with a type of subtle humour that is more sardonic than anything (“All power corrupts, but we need electricity”) with astute observations about people, relationships and society. In short: genius storytelling, great plotting and amusing characters, just what the doctor ordered.

Thea’s Take: I confess that it has been a while since I’ve read Diana Wynne Jones – the last book I read was Howl’s Moving Castle, after first watching the Hayao Miyazaki version (I love both the source material and the anime adaptation), and that was years ago. When I saw that Archer’s Goon had been selected for our July Old School Wednesday Readalong, I was excited but also a little wary – not because of the author, but because the book itself didn’t sound particularly exciting. And, when I started Archer’s Goon, I was worried because at first glance (actually, for the first two-thirds of the novel) seemed to be exactly as Ana says: a story about a family of magical megalomaniacs attempting to wrest power from each other. Yes, it’s written in a quirky and charming way, but there wasn’t anything particularly intriguing or awesome to distinguish this book anything other than a cute (if slightly slow) way to pass transit time on the subway.

But then, there’s a nice TWIST. And I like twists. While I wish the book hadn’t been quite as mundane and flat in its first two acts, by them time we get to the twist and big reveals, it’s all worth it – I finished the book with my faith in Diana Wynne Jones firmly in tact, and a silly, happy smile on my face.

In other words: Archer’s Goon is totally worth the slow buildup, and a very smart, fun book.

Discussion Questions

1. Let’s start with the plot because this is probably one of the most distinctive things about Archer’s Goon: the way that the story progresses slowly and you think you are reading something very specific and then boom surprise! Things are not exactly what you thought they were. What did you think of the story? Were you surprised by the twist?

Ana: It’s weird because I knew something was coming but not exactly what and how. Then the big revelation came and it was simultaneously surprising and obvious – in hindsight, I could see all the clues peppered in the text. I tend to like stories like this that deal with family dynamics and absurd situations (a giant sits in your kitchen and what do you do? Just walk around his feet and pretend he is not there) and even without “the twist” that connected everything, I think I’d have appreciated it. That said, the story does take some time to get there and the story seems very meandering to start with. I, as a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan, placed my trust on the author when I first opened the page but I do wonder if readers who are not as keen or who are not familiar with the author feel the same way?

Thea: Hmm. This is interesting, because it’s that question of author and audience expectation, isn’t it? As I said before, it’s been a while since I’ve read DWJ, and I experienced some hardcore trepidation when starting this book. Would it live up to my memory/expectation of Jones’ work? Or, would it be a fun but ultimately forgettable book (because every author – even our very favorite authors – have those forgettable books).

I agree with Ana that there is a HOPE, more than a feeling, of something else that is coming in Archer’s Goon – some revelation about this powerful magician family and the ordinary people ensnared in their scheme. I think the twist is very cleverly executed, and as Ana says there are plenty of hints dropped throughout the book on the way to that revelation.

However.

I did not KNOW or have implicit trust in the author to make that leap from charming-but-mundane to charming-and-awesome. I know that now, and I know that because Ana finished the book before I did and encouraged me that something would happen to make it all worth it. But had I been reading this, on my own, for the first time? I don’t know if I would have stuck with it to get to that great point. It’s like a conversation I recently was eavesdropping on via Twitter – just because there’s the promise of awesomeness in the future, doesn’t change the fact that the first 2/3 of this book are kind of… humdrum. And if I were a first time reader of DWJ, without anyone to assure me that it gets better, I probably would have been bored and put the book down.

2. Families – especially siblings – are at the center of this book. What did you think of the characters and their dynamics?

Ana: I mentioned that the book makes astute observations about people and about their relationships and I think this comes alive through the two sets of siblings and how they relate to each other and to their parents. Above all, I loved Awful and I loved her and Howard’s relationship the most, especially the strong stress placed on the youngest siblings in terms of their place in a family (and what it means to older siblings). I also loved how even though Howard loved the Goon and his sister Awful he was also able to fully see the potential for things going wrong with them.

That said, I think those astute observations about society at large were perfectly embodied in how Quentin was portrayed – Diana Wynne Jones has a brilliant way of writing imperfect parents (and imperfect children) and Quentin’s egotism coupled with his obvious good intentions “for the greater good” were delightful to read.

Thea: It’s true that relationships and the particular, prickly bond between siblings is at the heart of Archer’s Goon, and I loved the complicated dynamics between each different set of families and siblings within the novel.

As Ana points out, Howard and Awful are awesome, and I too loved the relationship between the two. In general, I loved Awful (real name, Anthea) and her boldness, her screaming, and energy. Awful is a force of nature, and I loved her overtness throughout the book. That said, this is really Howard’s novel, and it’s his quieter observations – very astute, especially when thinking about how to address other people to get them to listen to you – that drive the story. Goon is another unexpectedly wonderful main character, with his own hidden depth and secrets.

And, of course, how could we talk about characters without mentioning the megalomaniacal magician siblings? The beautiful Dillian, the sensible Archer and the kindhearted Hathaway were my favorites of the group (although of course there’s something to be said for the flamboyance of Torquil). I liked getting to know each of these siblings separately, although, again, I wish the process had been a little faster.

3. If you are a Diana Wynne Jones fan, how do you think Archer’s Goon fares in the broader context of her oeuvre? If this is your first DWJ (GASP), has this inspired you to read more from her?

Ana: I mentioned before how my admiration for DWJ’s books has informed my reading of this novel in the way that allowed me to place my trust in the author. I think this comes from the familiarity I have with her novels and how sometimes in her stories things are not what they seem. So in a way, this book reminded me a lot of The Game, Eight Days of Luke and A Tale of Time City in terms of plotting and progression of story.

How do I place this in the DWJ’s scale of awesome? I like the book: I loved parts of it but I don’t think I have fallen in love with it the way I have with say…Howl’s Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci series. There was a certain …detachment between Archer’s Goon and I and I admire what has been accomplished and how but this admiration does not necessarily come from an emotional connection formed with the novel.

Thea: Well, I think I’ve covered this at length in earlier answers, so I will keep this brief.

Archer’s Goon is a very good book, but one with an enormous caveat that the majority of the novel is actually kind of bland. Distanced. Not particularly piquant. True, the payoff is wonderful, but I don’t think that’s enough to make this a truly AMAZING book on the par with DWJ’s other novels.

(That said, Archer’s Goon on its own is still a good book on the whole, so that’s saying something about the author’s skill if this is one of her lesser efforts!)

4. What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about?

Ana: Favourite thing about the book? The family dynamics and Awful.
I was a little bit uncomfortable with a couple of things in the story. One of them is how Fifi’s was dragged into the final resolution without being asked if she was ok with being SENT INTO SPACE. Then other is the unfortunate way that DWJ often writes about fat people. I have talked about what I feel is a certain level of “fat phobia” in her stories before when portraying characters who are fat. This kind of breaks my heart a little bit.

Thea: Ana I am so glad you said that – the fat phobia bothered me too, as did the characterization of a redheaded character (whose name is actually Ginger, and portrayed as one of Shine’s thugs).

On a more positive note, my favorite thing about the book had to be the Twist itself. I don’t want to say anything more about it for fear of spoilers, but I absolutely loved the way it played out, and Howard’s detective work overall in the novel. Very, very clever, indeed.

Rating:

Ana: 7 – Very Good

Thea: 7 – Very Good, although it was verging on a 6.

August Readalong: Sorcery and Cecelia (August 28)

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Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

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10 Comments

  • hapax
    July 31, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    There’s a certain subset of DWJ that I think of as her “Moebius strip” novels; much of the joy is seeing how the plot twists around to that one great AHA! moment — and how it is almost irresistible to start re-reading them immediately from the beginning to see how it all fits together.

    ARCHER’S GOON is one of the better of these, but not the best. There are the three you mention, plus TALE OF TIME CITY and the TIME OF THE GHOST.

    The best one is probably HEXWOOD, although after innumerable re-reading I’m still not quite sure *exactly* what happened there (my daughter says she has resorted to plotting all the different timelines and characters on graph paper), and also (in a very different way) CROWN OF DALEMARK, which completely alters one’s reading of the three previous (barely connected) Dalemark novels, rather like shaking up a kaleidescope to watch the pieces re-settle.

    The problem is that when DWJ gives free reign to her mad leet plotting skillz, so often the subtler aspects of her writing — characterization, acute observation of family relationships, wry humor — get sort shrift. ARCHER’S GOON fares better than most of the others in this subgenre (well, except maybe for DEEP SECRET.

    Howard, as you note, is a character with subtle depths and a real character arc, and the push-pull dynamics of his relationship with Awful is one of the best parts of the book. Most of the rest of the characters, though (well, except perhaps for the Goon, whose interactions with Howard show interesting parallels to Howard’s with Awful — which they themselves, delightfully, acknowledge) fall pretty flat to me. Each of the magical siblings, especially, seem to serve a Plot purpose and a Theme purpose, which often do not sit comfortably — e.g., the almost arbitrary distinction between the Good siblings and the Bad ones, or the weird reversal in Torquil and Hathaway’s interactions.

  • Ana
    July 31, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    @Hapax:

    Each of the magical siblings, especially, seem to serve a Plot purpose and a Theme purpose, which often do not sit comfortably — e.g., the almost arbitrary distinction between the Good siblings and the Bad ones, or the weird reversal in Torquil and Hathaway’s interactions.

    This is a very good point and I actually do agree with that as well.

    Speaking of the siblings and another thing that I forgot to mention (fail): how their dynamics and their different “aspects” reminded me a lot of Sandman’s Endless.

  • Juan Pazos
    July 31, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    I have to say I found this one decidedly underwhelming. I tend to agree with Thea except I don’t think the “twist” (in inverted commas because alas! I guessed it quite in advance) made the book any better, in fact I liked the first half of the book the best. To me the characters are too one-note and some developments either don’t make sense or even if they do, I don’t care much about them. And quite frankly the ending is a bit of a cop out and left me with a feeling of inconclusiveness. Overall my verdict is Just Okay. And this (GASP) was my first Wynne Jones!

  • BlueFairy
    July 31, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    This was my first book by DWJ, although I bought Howl’s Moving Castle a few months back on sale, I haven’t gotten to it. I have to say I found the book utterly charming, in the best vein of a certain flavor of children’s books, like E. Nesbit or Patricia C. Wrede. I loved Howard and Awful, although I might have enjoyed the book more before the ‘twist’, and I could have used another female character with strength on the side of ‘good.’ (Their mom is pretty awesome, but gets sidelined a bit more than I liked.) Overall, a really thoroughly pleasant read.

  • Sarah
    July 31, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    It was interesting re-reading this after a gap of about twenty years. The most disturbing revelation for me was that since first reading it I have actually become Catriona! Yes, I have become a coffee-swilling, stressed-out music teacher who nags my kids to do their practice. But that’s OK… I love how DWJ includes realistic, flawed yet sympathetic adult characters as well as plucky kids.

    It took me a long time to get around to reading this even the first time, as it has the most unappealing cover and title of any of DWJ’s books. The plot, too feels like a writer’s conceit, with its focus on writer’s block and sophisticated satire; I’m not sure who it is meant to appeal to. I totally agree that it’s a slow build up to a satisfying twist, but it’s not in the same league as Hexwood for plotting audacity or many of her other books for emotional engagement. Still, any DWJ is a great read!

  • Ana
    August 1, 2013 at 4:22 am

    Juan – GASP. I am sorry this was just okay for you. Did it make you want to read more DWJ books? I hope so!

    Bluefairy – I am glad it worked for you! I loved Howl’s Moving Castle, I hope you like it as much as I did.

    Sarah – I really need to read Hexwood don’t I?

  • Andrea K
    August 1, 2013 at 6:44 am

    “Hexwood” is by far the twistiest (twistier even than “Fire and Hemlock”), but I’d love more to hear your reaction to one of the Dalemark books, Ana. They are the most atypical of DWJ’s books – they have a very individual feel all their own. Start with “Cart and Cwidder” (though I think my fave of those four is “The Spellcoats”).

    I think I like “Archer’s Goon” a little more than you both did. It’s not in my top-tier favourites, but I was engaged all the way through the book and didn’t find it slow to start out with.

  • Regina
    August 1, 2013 at 9:07 am

    I love this feature. My head is often spinning from all the new releases out there and they are hard to keep up with. So many are not worth a reader’s time compared with these oldies but goodies. Thanks for taking the time to dig these out.

  • Juan Pazos
    August 1, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    @Ana: I will probably read more Wynnes sometime…. but not very soon. This is probabbly a case of Huge Expectations Ill Met. All I have EVER heard of Wynne Jones is praise-praise-praise so this was a let down, but I won’t give up! And sometimes it’s a good thing to start with a good but not exceptional book from an author, because if you read their best first then everything else is a disappointment.

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