At this point in her nearly 40-year writing career, fantasy master Diana Wynne Jones has fallen into a predictable pattern: Throw a semi-sympathetic character into a hairy situation, then pile on the overwhelming, distracting forces of chaos, skimming past deeper character development while stirring the action up into a wild froth. Then resolve the central plot thread with a short, sharp tug at the end. Each of her books frequently reads like a collection of screwball comedies, distilled down to their essence and poured together so plotlines cross and crash. The formula isn't always satisfying, but it's inevitably a great deal of fast-paced fun.
Jones' latest, House Of Many Ways, is being billed as "the sequel to Howl's Moving Castle," the 1986 fantasy classic that Hayao Miyazaki loosely adapted into an animated film in 2004. But it's actually the second Howl's sequel, after 1990's Castle In The Air, and like Castle (and like many of the other books in Jones' "series"), it's only tangentially related to the first book, with some common characters turning up toward the end.
House Of Many Ways starts abruptly with sullen, bookish, spoiled teenager Charmain Baker being uprooted from her parents' house and tasked with looking after an ailing distant relative who's also her kingdom's royal wizard. But the second she arrives at his house, elves show up to take him away for healing, leaving her in charge of a dismally disordered, highly magical house with seemingly endless rooms. The problem is that she was never taught magic, which her provincial parents didn't consider "nice." And in short order she has to deal with an evil prince, a buglike monster that wants to lay eggs in her, a plague of furious gnomes, a well-meaning wizard's apprentice whose magic invariably goes explosively awry, and a long-dreamed-of job assisting the king in his library. Then things get really complicated.
Jones handles the burdens of half a dozen interlaced plot threads with the deftness of long experience, though one of her tricks for getting out of plot corners is just to make things wilder; she barely skims the surface of her characters, because there's just too much going on to give them time to think or talk among themselves for long. Her books might almost qualify as comedies, if they didn't so often center on situations where the characters are in dead and desperate earnest. Like Terry Pratchett, she mixes plot and comedy comfortably; unlike Pratchett, she skips clever wordplay in favor of water-slide speed and giddy thrills. Now in her mid-70s, she shows no signs of slowing down, either in terms of how quickly she writes or how quickly her novels move. Given how addictive slick, well-practiced books like House Of Many Ways are, here's hoping she never does.