I always look forward to March Magics, hosted by We Be Reading, a celebration of two favorite fantasy authors — Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett. This year I wanted to tie in my reading to my own Reading the Theatre event, so I looked for a book with a theatrical component.
I’ve already reviewed Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett’s comic mashup of various Shakespeare plays, not once but twice! So I thought I’d better focus on something else this year. My thoughts turned to DWJ and her 1980 novel The Magicians of Caprona, which has a memorable scene in which the child protagonists are turned into Punch and Judy puppets by malicious sorcery and narrowly escape murdering each other in the course of the play.
This chilling little drama highlights several things. One is how happy we are to watch gruesome events, as long as we believe they are not really happening to real people. When we ourselves become the targets of violence, it’s another story — but we may be unable to escape our roles, to protest or to find anyone to listen to us. Being a living puppet is not a fate to envy.
Children are often made targets in this way, because — as the wicked enchanter believes in the book — they are apparently helpless and unable to defend themselves. But as is often the case in Diana Wynne Jones’s work, through this very challenge they discover and demonstrate their native abilities to magically survive and even shine, in unique ways that had gone unrecognized by those around them. I am always happy to encounter a variation on this encouraging message, since even as an adult I’m still searching for my own magical powers.
Magic is not only performed through puppetry in Caprona. Enchantment is carried by music and singing, fittingly enough for a fictional Italian city state. The two rival magician families of Caprona make their spells through songs and verses; in another memorable scene they battle each other with choral singing and chanting. The main quest of the narrative is for the lost words of the song that would protect Caprona from the evil that menaces it, and singing together — in contrast to the earlier warfare — is the most powerful way to combat that evil. As we wait to emerge from our pandemic lockdown and be able to sing together once more, I cherish this example of one of my favorite forms of real-life enchantment.
A final nod to the theatrical theme is the Romeo-and-Juliet love story that takes place between those two rival families, but thankfully with a much happier ending. Although this is not one of Jones’s twistiest and most inventive tales, the family dynamics, which include rivalry, quarrels, and misunderstanding as well as love and support, are instantly relatable, and the magical elements serve to augment those human struggles, rather than placing them on some otherworldly plane.
That’s what good theatre does for me too, and so it’s one more reason I think this was a perfect read for this year.
Have you been to Caprona? If so, what did you enjoy most about it? Or what else are you reading for this year’s March Magics?
Thanks to Courtney Mayo for allowing me to use her illustration — see more of her beautiful work at her website.