Friday, October 14, 2005

Archer's Goon - Diana Wynne Jones

I had the strangest feeling when I was reading Diana Wynne Jones' Archer's Goon, that I had read it before, even though I knew I had never written anything by DWJ before reading Fire and Hemlock for the first time this year. This feeling intensified when I realised I knew who the mysterious Venturus was, even before his identity was revealed. I wondered whether I had seen some of the 1992 TV series, although I've no recollection of watching it. Anyway, as is usual for me, with DWJ's books, I found it hard to put down.

For the last 13 years Quentin Sykes, a writer, has produced 2000 words on any subject at all, every quarter which he sends to Mr Mountjoy at the Town Hall, in return for which he doesn't pay any taxes. However, the envelope goes astray one quarter and when Quentin's children arrive home from school they find a large thuggish man in the kitchen. He has come to collect "Archer's two thousand", an announcement that earns him the nickname "Archer's Goon", although he's usually referred to as "The Goon". Archer himself is one of seven siblings who run the town; he looks after banks and services such as gas and electricity; then there's Shine - she looks after crime; Hathaway - he looks after transport and quite literally lives in the past (four centuries to be exact); Dillian - she looks after law and order; Torquil - he looks after music; Erskine - he looks after the sewers; and finally, the youngest, Venturus, and he looks after the future.

The seven of them have been trapped in the Sykes' town for years - some of the siblings believe they've been there for 13 years, but Erskine and Hathaway know they've actually been there 26 years. Most of them believe that it's Quentin's words which are trapping them there, and Dillian has persuaded a friend of the Sykes' lodger (Fifi) to bringing the missing 2000 words to her - she is hoping to discover how Quentin's words have kept them trapped. The siblings make various attempts to persuade Quentin to do another 2000 words to replace the ones that went missing -the persuasion includes Hathaway setting workman to dig up the road outside the Sykes' house, the Goon more or less becoming a second lodger, Torquil causing bands of various kinds to parade up and down the street - and all the musical instruments in the house to play (Quentin's wife is a music teacher), Archer cutting off the gas and electric, and freezing the bank accounts of Quentin and his wife; etc., everyone discovers that it is in fact Venturus who has trapped them in the town, so that he could grow into his mysterious powers sufficiently to build a spaceship (he has also been waiting for technology to advance far enough that when he travels forward into the future, he can enhance it to build his spaceship). The first time he builds the spaceship, however, something goes wrong, so he traps his siblings in the town for another 13 years to try again. When the spaceship does finally work, Venturus tricks his three eldest siblings, Archer, Shine and Dillian, into boarding the ship, which he has programmed in such a way that it will go off into space and they won't be able to return to Earth.

It is only when Howard, Quentin's son, goes to where he thinks Venturus has hidden himself (on the site of a new building that's being put up at the Poly where his Dad teaches), that Venturus' identity is revealed. It also turns out that the Goon is not quite who he appears to be either, but everything works out well in the end...

My enthusiasm for Diana Wynne Jones' books will continue unabated for a little while longer - I've got the Dalemark Quartet sitting beside me, waiting to be read. But first, I must finish Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters! which finally turned up this week after several weeks of waiting...

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