New Zealand fantasy and children’s/YA author Margaret Mahy has died at the age of 76.

A wonderful prose stylist and creator of atmosphere, with books that turn on a dime from slyly funny to deeply moving, a master of twisty plots who was also brilliant at sketching vivid characters in a very few words, she is one of the very few writers whom I would compare to Diana Wynne Jones. Their books read very differently, but both had similar virtues as writers. Both were true originals. Their books meant the world to me, and I regret that I never got to meet either of them in person.

If you have never read Mahy, I offer a sampling of possibilities below. She wrote the kind of children’s books which are just as rewarding to adults, with sparkling surfaces and genuine depth. Unusually, she wrote both fantasy and realistic fiction, but her realistic novels read a bit like fantasy, full of mysteries and the sense of wonder. She’s also very good with families; unlike Jones’, they tend to have problems but generally be loving and functional.

Mahy was extremely prolific. I haven’t read any of her books for very young children, nor have I read all of her books for older kids and teenagers. What I have below is just a sampling.

I am very sad that most of her books appear to be out of print in America. However, if you’re in the USA, used editions are very easily obtainable and inexpensive. I have linked to those.

The Changeover. Probably Mahy’s best-known book, a fabulous contemporary fantasy. When Laura Chant’s little brother falls deathly ill due to a curse by an evil sorcerer, she teams up with Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle, school weirdo and witch, who can help her unlock her own powers. This is one teen romance that really works for me, with discreet sensuality and witty banter. The awakening of Laura’s powers is tied to the awakening of her maturity and sexuality – a theme which Mahy uses a couple times, and always well. Very atmospheric and well-characterized.

Catalogue of the Universe. Gorgeous mainstream novel about the romance and friendship between a troubled popular girl and a brilliant boy; not remotely what you’d expect from that synopsis, though. It’s beautifully written, emotionally perceptive, and what I’d point first when I said that Mahy’s mainstream novels have as much sense of wonder as her fantasy. It reminds me a little bit of Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful, overlooked Very Far Away from Anywhere Else.

Here's a post by Gwenda Bond which does a way better job of discussing the two books above; no spoilers.

The Tricksters. Fascinating, sophisticated, subtle, and very, very weird. 17-year-old Harry (a girl) is writing a terrible, id-vortex novel, full of lush descriptions and barely subtextual sexuality. Three mysterious men show up at her family’s summer home, to shake up everyone’s lives and shake loose some family secrets. Are they ghosts? Characters from her novel? Something else entirely?

Memory. I cannot believe I am recommending a novel in which a troubled teenage boy meets an old woman with Alzheimer’s. It sounds like a classic problem novel, and depressing to boot. But it isn’t, it isn’t, and it’s actually very good – a character study and a story about a relationship, not a story about issues.

The Haunting. This frightening, penetrating tale concerns Barney Palmer, who discovers that one person in each generation of his family has had supernatural powers; has he inherited this dreaded curse? Not as complex as some of her other books, but very atmospheric and spooky, with a nicely unpredictable plot.

The Other Side of Silence. A mainstream novel about a large, quirky, brilliant family, narrated by Hero, the daughter who doesn’t speak. Dark in parts, but not depressing; the family has problems but also a lot of strengths. This one is all about character growth and self-knowledge, and I loved the ending revelation about Hero’s silence.

Underrunners. When he wants to forget about his life, Tris visits the underrunners, the vast network of underground tunnels near his home. It's a fantasy world he tells no one about--until he meets Winola, whose escape from the Children's Home makes her Tris's perfect partner. Then they discover someone is watching them--suddenly their imaginary adventure turns horrifyingly real. It sounds like a suspense thriller with a helping of social issues, and it sort of is. But it’s also spookily poetic and full of mythic resonance. It reminds me a bit of Night of the Hunter, a thriller about children in danger that plays out like an old fairytale.

Please discuss any of Mahy’s novels here, including ones I didn't mention. Spoilers fine if they’re clearly marked in the subject heading.


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