Details: DW (c) 1985 Diane Duane; Pub Harcourt Magic Carpet books 1996; ISBN 0-15-216257-7 / HW (c) 1990 Diane Duane; Pub Harcourt Magic Carpet books 1997; ISBN 0-15-216244-5
Verdict: Deep Wizardry is effective both as a story and, surprisingly, as a Christian allegory. High Wizardry builds on this successfully.
Reasons for reading it: I enjoyed So you want to be a wizard, and was eager to read the sequels. (Actually I read Deep wizardry back in April, but I'm getting behind on book reviews so I shall cover the two together.)
How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon lent me both books. With a nice beau to lend me whole series at once, I could get into this reading series thing; not having the frustration of taking ages to find the next book makes a big difference to my enjoyment!
Deep wizardry has many of the good qualities of SYWtbaW, but is a lot more original. I love the theme of the whale wizards. The descriptions of the underwater world are very evocative, and very much add to the interest of the book, making it stand out from the general run of children discovering a portal to another world type of books. And DW deals a lot more successfully and interestingly with the problem of integrating world-saving magical powers into mundane life as a young teenager. I loved the plot arc based on Nita's sister and eventually her parents discovering what is going on, and being plausibly upset about Nita getting into a totally mysterious and very risky situation in her mission to save the world.
The characterization continues to be enjoyable. I like the way that Nita and Kit are sympathetic and obviously competent as well as being endowed with important powers, but still a bit dorky and not at all annoyingly perfect. It's rather lovely to have characters named Juanita Callahan and Christopher Rodriguez; they are plausible American children with mixed ancestry and American identities, not default WASPs or "typically" ethnic tokens. They seem a little young for their supposed ages, but not ridiculously so as some characters from children's books can be. And I like the inclusion of a gay couple whose relationship and sexuality is so far from being the main point that, believably, the kids aren't even aware of it.
So apart from being a particularly fun example of the genre, DW handles its religious theme really extraordinarily well. I was actually far more moved by Nita's sacrifice than Aslan's. Even when I was young enough not to notice that Aslan was really Jesus, he's very obviously a god, extremely powerful and not at all an ordinary person following the normal rules, whereas Nita is a viewpoint character, a twelve-year-old girl actually more plausible than the majority of children's book heroines, and someone I could very much relate to. (This may be a problem with the original Jesus as well; everything from the Annunciation and miraculous birth onwards makes it very hard to believe that he's merely human, even though I know that theologically he is supposed to be human as well as divine.) Her reactions and emotional states as she chooses to make the sacrifice are described very effectively, too, and the Master Shark is a really wonderful character. At the same time, Duane never forces the Christian message down the reader's throat; it's a story set in the framework of Christian theology, rather than a direct allegory of the Passion narrative.
High wizardry didn't work quite as well for me, in some ways. The strongest parts of it are really quite amazingly good, but it's a little patchy. About the first third to half of the book, it feels like a rather formulaic sequel to the earlier two. It's exciting, and the idea of the computerized wizard manual is cute, and the descriptions of the various alien planets that Dairine visits while trying out her powers are well done, but the structure of that kind of series of jumps between different imaginary worlds is rather unoriginal. It's only after Dairine arrives on the silicon planet that things start to get really exciting.
The religious theme is amazingly powerfully handled. I really liked both the portrayal of religious emotions and experiences, and the underlying theology, which is almost all shown by the progress of the story, without any heavy-handed infodumps. The sentient planet is a wonderful idea, and really superlatively well executed. Making Dairine into almost a demiurge is a really brilliant twist on retelling the Genesis story, (although that seems really clumsy stated like that, in the book it makes perfect sense), and I found the whole thing incredibly emotionally intense. I'm not quite sure what to make of the ending; I don't know if it would have been preferable to follow the allegory through and directly tackle the concept of the Fall. The happy ending is a bit much; it seems out of the scale of the story, complete redemption of the whole cosmos, as opposed to saving the world from a short-term crisis. In a lot of ways, though, HW is like a YA version of Olaf Stapledon's religious SF classic Star Maker, which is quite an achievement.
Given how strong the final section is, it seems petty to quibble about HW. But the involvement of Nita and Kit seems to be almost entirely superfluous, only there to make a tenuous connection to the earlier books in the series. I think the book would be more successful if it were entirely from Dairine's POV. That may be partly to do with the fact that Dairine is probably more like me at her age than just about any other character I've come across in all my YA reading. She's notably intelligent, but not otherwise wonderful and talented and sparkly, and she's self-centred and impulsive and arrogant in ways I find really recognizable. I generally don't like stories about growing up; if there is a child hero, I want them to stay a child (both Anne of Green Gables and Kim annoyed me in this respect, and I suspect Harry Potter would have too if I'd read it as a kid). But Dairine's experience of learning that other people are real people and that life is more than just a game that she's winning really resonated with me.
I was rather annoyed with the way that Nita and Kit are so casual about magic, after all the emphasis in the earlier books about how magic has a cost and shouldn't be used for trivial chores. Had I read this at the age when I was into YA fantasy, I would have been deeply irritated by the intrusion of puberty and teenage romance themes into the framework; if there's one thing I hated as a kid it was reading about our heroine saving the world with her magical powers and then in the next chapter getting her first bra and having a crush on a boy. That said, the development of the interaction between Nita and Kit is very well handled, and at least as an adult reader, I love the conversation where they admit that they might have feelings for eachother but their friendship is far more important, both because of the non-clichéd outcome and because they are no more articulate than real teenagers dealing with that sort of emotional context.
The thing that all three books do exceptionally well is in talking about the Devil, which is rather surprising in books aimed at that age-group. The Lone Power is very much not just a final boss guy in a dualist system, the books are really engaging on quite a profound level with Christian interpretations of the theological role of evil. HW starts to slide a little bit into more explicitly Christian language compared to the other two, which again might have put me off as a kid. But in general it's presenting Christianity in a way that a child could relate to, but without dumbing it down or sugaring it. And it's far, far less directly preachy than either CS Lewis or Philip Pullman; the only comparable writing I can come up with is L'Engle.
Although I've enjoyed the books very much, I don't think I'm going to read any more after this. Apart from anything else, I just can't see where the series could possibly go after that ending that wouldn't be a total, bathetic anticlimax.