Judged by Andree • find her on Goodreads
I know that Grace’s Round 2 post wherein she picked The Road Home to advance to the next round started the exact same way this post is about to, but I think it bears repeating.
These two books, The Road Home and Year of the Griffin, are really very, very different. In style, in subject matter, in storyline.
One is almost hyper-realistic and incredibly emotional in tone. The other is light and playful.
One focuses on a young woman’s experience as a nurse in the Vietnam War, and the effects that linger long after she returns home. The other tells the story of a group of misfits trying to get through their first year at a university for wizards, and the challenges they face there.
One features an often borderline-suicidal, definitely more-than-borderline alcoholic narrator trying to come to grips with what her life has become. The other has griffins. And accidentally opened pits.
In fact, I spent some time trying very hard to come up with some kind of common ground between the two novels. Beyond the breathtakingly obvious (i.e. “both books involve families” or “both books contain romantic elements”), all I could come up with was this: Both books are set during periods of transition.
In The Road Home, the sense of transition is more personal, because though it deals with larger themes, I found the novel to be a very personal one. It follows Lt. Rebecca Phillips and her adjustment from her life overseas in the ER of a hospital in a war zone, where her life is in constant danger and horrific sights are part of her day to day, to her return to civilian life and the realities of her parents’ house in New England, where attitudes toward the war she just came home from are decidedly mixed. And where everyone she meets is expecting her to be the same bubbly girl who left two years ago. Needless to say, the adjustment is far from an easy one, and by the end of the novel, the process is just beginning.
In contrast, in Year of the Griffin it is the entire world that is in transition. In the recent past, the entire planet was forced to act as a sort of worldwide tourist trap, wherein everything and everyone on the planet contributed to the tourist experience. The previous book in the series dealt with the end of the tours. This one is set in a world still trying to figure out how to adjust to its new reality, and it centres on the adventures of a handful of students studying at a University that is not handling that transition particularly well. In spite of the less than spectacular state of their school, the students are bright and determined and innovative. And they have loads of ideas on how to get the best out of their magical education and move the school forward towards the future. Like The Road Home, at the end of the novel, this process is just beginning.
And that’s it in terms of similarities.
(And no, this entire introduction highlighting the lack of common ground isn’t a simply a lengthy preamble to argue the inevitability of the very subjective, intuitive decision that follows – complete with bonus attempts at objectivity after the fact. Why do you ask?)
Both books are so different that they almost have to be treated separately, though whenever possible I will try to compare them as I explain my decision. Which I actually made very quickly after reading both books, though it took me a little bit more time to try and explain why (since I assumed “Because I felt like it,” wasn’t sufficient justification for my choice).
For a start, both books are extremely well written novels. I’m happy to have read both. I would recommend reading both of them to just about anyone. Neither is perfect, but I also didn’t feel that either had any particularly serious flaws. If I hadn’t been reading the books for battle purposes I doubt I’d have picked up on some of the things I did.
The Road Home deals with difficult subject matter extremely well. It’s beautifully written. It doesn’t shrink from the more terrible aspects of the Vietnam War, and some of the things that were going on in the U.S. at the same time, but it also doesn’t condemn them. I think it’s because the story is so personalized. Rebecca is an excellent protagonist. Her voice is there on the page from the first sentence. Her experiences feel like they could have happened, and though I wasn’t alive when any of this happened and so have no firsthand experience, the novel feels incredibly realistic. It also leads to more questions about war and an awareness of how we as a society treat returning soldiers (something that struck me as particularly timely given that the last Canadian soldiers just returned home from Afghanistan last week). It’s definitely well worth reading.
That said, it’s not an easy book to read, for obvious reasons (and that is what is going to make it sound like I liked the book less than I did). The very authenticity of the novel meant that most of the time I was reading it (certainly the first three quarters of the book), I was essentially upset. Upset in the way that I’d imagine you’re supposed to be upset while reading a novel like this (if anything, it’s a compliment to the writing), but upset nonetheless. Also, I sometimes found the writing style a bit… sparse. I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but it’s the best I can come up with. It was almost like I was looking for something between the words while I was reading. The style was probably a deliberate choice, because some of the feeling was a result of the bleakness and the difficulties that surrounded Rebecca, but there were times that I wasn’t completely sold on the writing style.
And lastly, the characters and relationships between them. I really liked all of the characters and the relationships that we were shown, but I kept wishing we knew more. Again, I think this was a deliberate choice by the author, one made to demonstrate that the connections you make while at war are intense and life-changing, but not necessarily permanent. Still, as a reader I wanted to hear more about the ER doctor who was incredibly difficult to work with. I wanted to hear more about the one nice doctor who was in love with the Chief Nurse. I wanted to hear more about Rebecca’s fellow nurses. She says goodbye to them at the end of her tour and is noticeably upset, but I don’t really feel like we learn anything specific about them (off the top of my head I can’t remember a single one of their names).
But mostly, I wanted more development of most of the major relationships in the novel. Rebecca’s relationship with her family strikes the best balance for me. I really enjoyed her scenes with her mother in particular. On the other hand, while I loved her relationship with Major Doyle, the chief nurse (and I really loved their relationship – definitely my favourite part of the novel), I also kept wanting more. I wanted more scenes of them talking about the war, and how poorly Rebecca was coping, or Major Doyle awkwardly discussing her love life, or tricking Rebecca into eating a normal amount. I really enjoyed their dynamic, and really wished there was at least one more scene between them in the end.
Plus, the romance didn’t quite work for me. Objectively, I get it. This hugely traumatic event brought Rebecca and Michael together. They were each other’s touchstone in a really horrible situation (and there’s a loveliness in that, don’t get me wrong). A shared experience creating a bond that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. But Michael even says it at one point; I feel like she got to know him, but not vice versa. In a situation like this, maybe the shared experience is the thing that matters most, because who else could possibly understand? And I get that their story is unfinished at the end of the book, but I guess it never really hit home to me why Rebecca felt as strongly for Michael as she obviously did. Not beyond an objective level, which isn’t really what you want in a love story.
On the other hand, there’s obviously a balance to be struck between showing the development of the relationships, and showing Rebecca’s isolation in the war. Still, I think I would have preferred slightly more development at times.
Character and relationship wise, Year of the Griffin is entirely different. I’ve read a number of Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, and while I like all of them, there are few I love. This one might fall into the latter category. The novel focuses on a group of characters within a larger world, and thus each individual character or relationship is somewhat less important than in a book that focuses on a single character. I really enjoyed all the characters, their quirks and foibles. I was entertained by every single one of them. This book made me laugh out loud more than once.
I was entertained that pretty much everybody had some sort of problem at home that might prevent them from attending the school. I loved that this is a book where it is acceptable to send assassins after a family member. I loved that it featured a character who, practically every time he tried to do magic, accidentally created a pit (to the extent that it’s the only thing he can be reliably counted on to do). I loved all the griffin-related romance (and how you apparently know that a female griffin doesn’t really hate you if she hasn’t pecked out your eye yet). I also loved how each student had strengths and weaknesses. One wasn’t brilliant at everything and another terrible. Even the girl everyone at the school admitted was stupid had her moments.
I really enjoyed all of the friendships and the relationships we were shown. There was something so charming about all of them, even if most of the romantic relationships weren’t developed in detail (and in some cases that didn’t even matter). On the other hand, most of the romances weren’t central to the plot, instead feeling more like an added bonus.
I think I may also be a bit of a sucker for magical school plotlines. But this wasn’t just your typical magical school plotline. This is a book that explicitly encourages young readers to question their teachers and the way they’re being taught. To question the way they’re supposed to do things and to go beyond that, looking for another solution. Just because it’s the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean it’s right. It celebrates intellectual curiosity and searching for another way. I loved Derk as educational dissident, urging his daughter and her friends to question their teachers and their reliance on a curriculum that may no longer be appropriate in the new world of possibilities that has opened up in the last few years. As someone who was forced to do so many things by rote in school, it’s a theme that I really enjoyed, and the thing that elevated this book to one I loved, as opposed to one I just liked a lot.
One of my problems with Diana Wynne Jones’s novels is that they’re sometimes entirely charming, but lacking heart. Even this one feels close to getting digressive from time to time (maybe not quite digressive, but something). This one manages the issue better than most. I do think there are a lot of characters in this novel, and a lot of detail. There’s something of an abundance of plot, which occasionally makes the novel feel scattered. There are times when, although the book is continuously charming, you wonder if the sheer amount of detail is necessary. In the end, I think the theme of what real learning is anchors the novel, and helps prevent the book from devolving into a series of potential family and political problems. The book would read almost like a series of vignettes if the sense of community between the six first year students wasn’t solidly established. The heart of this book is the group of friends that find themselves at this school because they want to be there, and their drive to stay there and really learn. And nothing’s going to stop them. Not a genuinely skin-crawly piratical parent, a senate with murderous intent, a group of assassins, powerful dwarf clans, the order of a king, or some truly incompetent teachers.
Year of the Griffin left me wanting to read more. I want to know what happens to Elda and her friends in their second and third year. I want to know what happens to Blade and Kit now that they’re apparently two of the most powerful magicians in the world. I want to know what happened between the first and second book of this series. I want to know more about everyone (and don’t even get me started on Flury).
In Year of the Griffin, I want to hear more stories of afterwards (or even before), unlike The Road Home, where I wanted to hear slightly more of the story within the existing book.
And that is one of the reasons I’m sending Year of the Griffin onto the next round.
Because it’s a not-so-serious novel with a serious message, and while both novels have important messages, this is the one that speaks to me personally.
Because I really loved all of the characters and little details.
Because in the end, I enjoyed the actual reading experience more.
Because who doesn’t enjoy the odd accidental magic pit?
And maybe a little bit because I feel like it.
Congratulations to Year of the Griffin, which moves on to the final round!