A Sudden Wild Magic
Diana Wynne Jones
This is one of Diana Wynne Jones' few novels written for adults, and it is the only one that you are likely to come across that is not entirely appropriate for young adults. It is, unfortunately, not one of her best novels. It is a fantasy novel not too different from her Magid books, but it appears to be an attempt to move into a market that she just isn't very good at -- adding frequent references to sex and some rather boring relationship angst are not sufficient to move from the children's/young adult market into the mainstream fantasy market. As fantasy novels go, it is only middling.
A Sudden Wild Magic takes place primarily on Earth as we know it, around the year 1992. Unbeknown to the masses, the world is secretly being managed and protected by groups of mages and witches, who work to keep international peace and control major disasters. Just as the world seems to be calming down from a long run of violent conflicts, a new problem pops up -- global warming. The magic users gear up to tackle this new problem, but one high-ranking magician notices something odd in the pattern of problems that constantly assail the human race; it appears that they are not random, but are being planned by a hostile power, one that isn't of this Earth, or even of this universe. It also appears that they have spies amongst the mages, and are able to keep disturbingly close tabs on their projects. The magic users of England band together to send an invading force into the neighboring universe, intending to disrupt their control over Earth. They plan to do this largely by corrupting and distracting the enemy mages with sex -- although despite the hints of erotica found in the cover blurbs, this is not a particularly crude tale.
In the meantime, the head of the other universe's spy agency is having plenty of trouble himself. The spy agency actually inhabits an artificially created 'pocket universe', called Arth, between the universes of Earth and Orthe, and is charged with studying Earth to harvest new technologies and magics. Often, Earth doesn't produce new developments quickly enough, and Arth will seed Earth with problems to see how it solves them. Recently, Orthe's seas have been rising at an alarming rate, and pressure is being put on Arth to find solutions. Orthe takes a low shot when they send Arth its yearly allotment of new recruits, filling the ranks with the worst Orthe has to offer -- layabouts, juvenile delinquents, and throwbacks. The High Head is becoming desperate, when an unexpected shuttle full of girls from another universe arrives at the station. Surprisingly, they seem to get along very well with the troops, and things seem to be getting better...
Unfortunately, it takes somewhere around 150 pages to get to the fun part, and I can't tell you about that without giving away spoilers. But rest assured, after a somewhat drab beginning the story eventually develops into the chaotic magical adventure that we expect from Ms. Jones, and the second half of this book stands par with Dark Lord of Derkholm or Deep Secret. Although I think that much of this book is missing some of the flare and personality that makes Diana Wynne Jones such a great author, it is still an interesting story idea, and the plot moves along well and is pleasingly convoluted.
Needless to say, I do not recommend reading this book unless you've already read a lot of her better books. This book stands apart from all her established series, and you wont mis anything by leaving it until you've read her more popular (and better) books. If you do read this book, don't despair if the first few chapters don't grab you, it is a fun book once you get into it.
On a side note, this book wins the 'worst cover art' award not once but twice. Both the 1994 AvoNova run and the 1996 Gollancz printing are screamingly bad. (Although the later 1997 Gollancz cover isn't half bad). The first has halfway decent cover art, but the cyan blue background with purple cursive script with yellow highlighting is glaringly bad. It is made even worse through poor capitalization: a Sudden Wild Magic. Gollancz attempted to top this with a glaring hot pink cover with orange and maroon highlights, intending it to look like a stylized demon, but in fact looking like a run-of-the-mill romance novel gone psychotic. I have an extensive collection of second-rate SF and fantasy; not even the minimalist clip-art train-wrecks of the 1970s are this bad. Why must bad cover art happen to good authors?