In Diana Wynne Jones’ 1984 standalone novel Archer’s Goon, thirteen-year-old Howard Sykes returns home to discover a stranger in his home. Rather alarmingly, it’s a very large stranger, the very goon of the title, and he’s not going anywhere until Howard’s father Quentin delivers the two thousand he owes someone named Archer.
Quentin explains that he owes not money but words: two thousand delivered every three months. This is his strange method of dealing with writer’s block, one that has worked for thirteen years. However, Quentin’s arrangement was not with someone named Archer, but with Mountjoy, a friend at the Council. Since Quentin believes that the scheme was just a ploy to defeat writers block, he does not understand why anyone would send a very large man around to collect words.
Not to mention that as far as Quentin knew, he had sent in his words.…
Assisted by the goon, Howard and his little sister, the aptly named Awful, decide to investigate. The answers are not comforting. The town, it seems, is the shared property of seven ambitious wizards, all siblings. They are far more powerful than any non-wizard human; apparently, the only thing that keeps them from conquering the Earth is Quentin. As long as Quentin has had his little arrangement with Mountjoy, none of the seven siblings have been able to venture past the town limits.
Bored and frustrated, the wizards are determined to discover what role Quentin’s words play in their confinement and how to break the curse. Too bad for any mortal who gets in their way.
I don’t know that I will follow up 2016’s A Year of Tanith Lee with another grand project, but if I did and it were to be a single author project, the works of Diana Wynne Jones would certainly be in the running. Jones has published a large and widely-admired body of work, of which I have read surprisingly little. Case in point: 1984’s Archer’s Goon. It only took me thirty-two years to read this gem. It’s not as if it were a particularly obscure book. To quote from Wikipedia:
It was nominated for the 1985 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and is listed as an ALA Notable Children’s Book, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book.
I have only myself to blame. An inexplicable lacuna in my otherwise broader-than-usual reading of SFF.
Perhaps I did not explore further because the Jones books I have read (The Dalemark Quartet1) didn’t hint that Jones could be wickedly funny. The stakes in this book are very high (the fate of the earth!) but that does not prevent Jones from taking a humorous view of events.
I also found myself admiring Jones’ even-handedness. She shows some sympathy for the wizards and is not blind to the faults of Quentin’s family. This is not a melodrama featuring pure-hearted protagonists and despicable antagonists. Even the worst of the wizards seems to have some admirable or at least pitiable trait; Howard and his family are not without their foibles. There’s a rather touching scene in which the wizard responsible for trapping his siblings finally confronts what he has done. He is not some preening villain — no, just a man-child whose self-centered plans had side effects he did not foresee.
This is aimed at younger readers but I can testify that adults (or at least some of us) can enjoy it as well. Copies of Archer’s Goon may be purchased here.
1: If The Dalemark Quartet comprises four books, why can I only find notes for three of them in my Finished folder? Is it possible that I was only sent a partial set to review? If so, this was a great injustice. If not, I didn’t save the last set of notes. I should probably skim the last book to see if any of it sounds familiar.