Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Belated Birthday Review: The Dalemark Quartet, by Diana Wynne Jones

(Cover by Yvonne Gilbert)
Diana Wynne Jones was born 16 August 1934, and died in 2011. She was an exceptional writer of Fantasy, best known for her Young Adult work, but also for some very good work aimed at adults. (And it should be noted that most of her YA books are definitely "to please adults", and the best of them are as complex and challenging, perhaps more so, than most so-called "adult novels".)

In belated recognition of her birthday (hey, I was out of town!) here are four short reviews of the books in her Dalemark Quartet.

Cart and Cwidder

(Cover by Juliet Stanwell Smith)
Cart and Cwidder is the first of Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark books, which ran to four. Dalemark is a fairly obvious version of Wales.  Indeed, the book reminded me a bit of Lloyd Alexander, though not the Prydain books (set in a version of Wales), but rather the Westmark books, as they share, very roughly, tech level, and interest in politics.

This book concerns an 11-year old boy named Moril, a musician traveling with his family. They earn their money by stopping at towns and villages and playing songs. They also pass news among the people of Dalemark, and take passengers : they and other musicians are the only people who regularly travel between the northern and southern parts of the land, which are at the point of war. The south in particular is being severely repressed by the Earls (there has been no King for some time), and a spy called the Porter is wanted. The family consists of their jolly father Clennen, their beautiful, aristocratic mother Lenina, the talented 15-year old songwriter son Dagner, and a 12-year old girl, Brid, in addition to Moril. The title refers to the cart they live and travel in, and to the main musical instruments they use, "cwidders", which seem guitar-like (is cwidder a cognate for guitar?), and one of which may have magical powers.

On the journey in question, they pick up a rather mysterious traveller, Kialan, a boy of roughly Dagner's age. He has a tendency to disappear when they pass through villages. Then, near the castle of Lenina's former fiance, some men show up and murder Clennen. Abruptly, Lenina heads to her ex-fiance's house, as he has long promised to marry her if she is ever free. But the children recognize one of the murderers as a guest at the house, and they decide to head on their own to the North.  On their way, they find more trouble, and eventually they learn that war is closer to hand than they thought. Can it be stopped?

It's very readable and involving -- I'm not sure DWJ can be other than readable and involving. But it shares with much YA fantasy a certain thinness in the background. DWJ's best work, such as Fire and Hemlock, seems much more completely imagined, more complex in characterization, theme, and morality. This book is fun, and not without real tension and characterization, but it seems minor compared to my favorites among her work. I will be buying the rest of the Dalemark books, however.

Drowned Ammet

(Cover by Geoff Taylor)
#2 is Drowned Ammet, which is set roughly contemporaneously with the first book, Cart and Cwidder. In this book we meet Alhammitt, or Mitt, a poor boy from the far southern town of Holand, who becomes somewhat radicalized when his father and mother are thrown out of their farm for capricious reasons by the tax collector for the evil Earl Hadd, and later his father's involvement with the Free Holanders goes terribly wrong, leaving Mitt and his feckless mother alone.  Mitt grows up a sailor and later a gunsmith's apprentice, and plots to gain revenge on both the Free Holanders (for betraying his father) and on Earl Hadd (for pretty much everything) by killing the Earl and implicating the Free Holanders. But this plot too goes terribly wrong, and Mitt ends up on a yacht with the two of the Earl's grandchildren, heading for the North.  I liked this book quite a bit -- Jones' puts her characters (Mitt and the two noble children) under great stress -- not just physical danger but she pushes them to see their own sever personal faults, and this works very well. The plot is nicely resolved, albeit with a bit of convenience, maybe with a bit more magical help than I like, and with a plot twist that even though I saw it coming, I could hardly believe she had the effrontery to exercise. (And I thought it just a shade unfair.)  All told, though, a very nice book, and coupled with the first clearly part of a series, but reasonably well contained too. 

The Spellcoats

(Cover by Ruth Sanderson)
The third book in Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet is The Spellcoats. This book is set in the prehistory of Dalemark, hundreds or thousands of years prior to the action of the first two books (and, I assume, the fourth). It deals with a family of children: Robin, Gull, Hern, Mallard (or Duck), and the narrator, Tanaqui, who is presented as weaving the entire story into the title "spellcoats". The so-called "Heathens" have invaded their land, and Gull and their father are recruited to fight -- a war from which Gull returns apparently mad, and their father not at all.  At the same time, the children face hostility from their fellow villagers, because they are bright-haired like the Heathens. As an enormous flood strikes the village, they are forced to flee down the great River to the Sea. Along the way they receive mysterious advice from their dead Mother, and from a strange man, who seems to be a wizard, and who Robin falls in love with.  They learn that an evil wizard, Kankredin, awaits at the mouth of the river, and that he seems to be calling Gull to him. After encounters with both Kankredin and the young King of the Heathens, they head back upriver with their own King, and with their strangely changed "Undying" figure.  All the children must learn their own surprising destinies, and the true nature of their Undying, of their Mother, of the "wizard" Tanamil, of Kankredin and their River. 

Magic is closer to the surface in this book than in the other two, and the events closer to mythical events.  It is partly a nation-formation tale -- it becomes clear that this is the story of how Dalemark as Dalemark came to be -- as such, an important set up, I would guess, for the final volume, which presumably will concern the reunification of the sundered Kingdom. Perhaps because it's such a "mythical" book, it's also darker, and perhaps grander, than the first two book.  All in all, another very fine DWJ story.

The Crown of Dalemark

(Cover by David Wyatt)
The concluding volume is The Crown of Dalemark. Oddly, this book didn't appear until 14 years after the last of the preceding three: in 1993. Yet it's not an afterthought -- the series clearly needed a closing volume -- I wonder why DWJ waited so long.  At any rate it's a solid conclusion, much longer than the first three books, a bit darker in tone (though really all four books have dark overtones), and a logical and different than expected resolution to the events set up in the first books.

There are two main characters in this book -- Mitt, also one of the heroes of book 2 (Drowned Ammet), and Maewen, a girl from the future of Dalemark -- a time very roughly corresponding to our own time in terms of technological development. Maewen, while visiting her father (her parents are separated), meets a couple of strange individuals. One, she soon learns, is Kankredin, the evil wizard from The Spellcoats, while the other is another of the Undying. This character maneuvers her back into the past, to take the place of Noreth, a girl from Mitt's time who looks just like Maewen. Noreth was a descendant of the rightful King of Dalemark, and she had planned to find the four objects that only the King can use (a cup, a ring, a sword, and a crown) and reclaim the Crown of Dalemark and reunite the sundered kingdom.  But Noreth disappeared before she could accomplish this, and Maewen must walk the roads of Dalemark to find these objects in her place. The powers that be, naturally enough, oppose Noreth's quest, and she is stalked by assassins. One of these is Mitt, who is blackmailed by his Northern hosts into going after Noreth -- but after meeting her Mitt refuses, and soon he joins her tiny entourage, along with the hero of Book 1 (Cart and Cwidder): Moril the Singer, as well as another Singer, and the clever but perhaps not trustworthy southern nobleman who was also exiled to the North with Mitt, and the Undying who has sent Maewen here.

Maewen, Mitt, and the others wander about the countryside, often in rather magical fashion, tracking down the four objects, but also trying to elude the assassins, and eventually armies, which are trying to stop.  Maewen's only goal is to give the objects to the man she knows became king: Amil the Great, the man who more or less singlehandedly founded modern Dalemark.  But who could he be?  There is no sign of him.  The resolution is surprising and rather effective. Jones makes excellent use of the rather unusual magic "system" (though it's not really systematic, and is perhaps more effective for that) that she has established, especially the Undying, who are like gods but not by any means omnipotent or even all-knowing.  The four books represent a very solid work of YA fantasy.

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