Sunday, October 16, 2005

Dalemark Quartet - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones' 'Dalemark Quartet' consists of Cart and Cwidder, Drowned Ammet, The Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark.

Dalemark is made up of 15 earldoms and the three King's Lands (the Holy Islands, the Marshes and the Shield of Oreth). Unfortunately the kingdom no longer has a king, and as a result is divided into North and South Dalemark.

The cwidder in Cart and Cwidder is a musical instrument - a cross between a lute and an acoustic guitar. The cart of the title takes Clennen the Singer, his wife and their three children (Brid, Dagner and Moril) around both North and South Dalemark, giving performances. Moril is 11 and is learning to play the cwidder; when his father is stabbed and killed by men from the South (who are at war or close to it with those from the North - which is where Clennen and his family come from), Clennen leaves Moril the big old cwidder which belonged to Osfameron, of old. It is a magical instrument with the power to (amongst other things) send people to sleep, or make mountains walk. Osfameron is one of the Undying, of which there are two kinds:

1 - The Elder Undying who had the status of gods and whose were apparently trapped in the land. They were worshipped in various rituals which are remembered in bits and pieces all over Dalemark. The Elder Undying can be distinguished by their ritualised names, such as the One, whose names must not be spoken; She Who Raised the Islands; the Weaver of Fates; the Earth Shaker.

2 - People who live forever. Apparently there is a gene of true immortality in the blood of the people of Dalemark. Although such people are born rarely, they do exist and they nearly all possess unusual powers.

Moril wields the power of Osfameron's Cwidder, even though he does not understand it, and uses it to allow himself, his sister and his friend Kialan (who is the son of a Northern earl) to escape from the clutches of a Southern earl. When the book ends, Moril is about to set off with Hestafen, another Singer, in order to learn more about how to use the Cwidder.

Drowned Ammet features another young boy, Mitt, who becomes a freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on your point of view) in order to avenge the death of his father and revenge himself on the group of freedom fighters who betrayed his father. He drops a bomb in front of the Earl Hadd, intending to kill Hadd (who is the one who raised rents so high that his father moved to the town from the family farm to earn money but he ended up joining the freedom fighters). Mitt's plan fails, although Earl Hadd is killed anyway, but a lone gunman, and he escapes by stowing away on a rich man's pleasure boat. The boat, it turns out, belongs to Hadd's grandson Ynen and his sister, Hildy, and they get caught in a storm and carried so far out to sea that they end up visiting the Holy Islands. There Mitt encounters Ammet, the Earth Shaker, and is set on a course that leads him to North Dalemark.

The Spellcoats was quite the oddest book of the series. It features a family of five children, two girls and three boys (most of whom have bird names - Gull is the eldest boy, Robin the eldest girl and Mallard the youngest boy) whose mother is dead, and whose father goes off to war (taking Gull with him). Gull returns, but their father does not, but he's in a strange way. He stares a lot and doesn't do anything, even eat, unless told to do so. The children finds themselves ostracised by their village for being different (they are fair-haired where everyone else is dark-haired), and then the River they live near floods. They take themselves off in the family boat and travel down the River. On the way, they learn that a powerful Undying one, Karkredin, has put spells on Gull and intends to capture his soul. The Spellcoats of the title is a reference to the rugcoats (a garment like a poncho made of woven wool) that are worn as outer clothing by the men and women of the Riverside (ie. Robin and Gull and their siblings, and those who live in their village. However, it is traditional to weave words into the rugcoat, thus making it into a spellcoat if the weaving is done by someone descended from the Weaver of Fates, as it turns out that Robin and Gull's sister Tanaqui is; Tanaqui makes a coat that describes in its weaving the journey she and her siblings make down the River, but it is taken from her, so she makes a second coat (which incidentally describes the first) and then she is able to use its power to help defeat (but not destroy) Kankredin.

The fourth and final book of the Dalemark Quartet, The Crown of Dalemark, brings together many of the characters from the preceding books, together with a girl nicknamed Maewen, who is 200 years into the past, from a 20th century Dalemark that features planes, trains, computers, and tourists from a country called Nepstan - which sounds like the Dalemark equivalent of Japan. Maewen is sent into the past by an agent of Kankredin in the hope of preventing the advent of Amil the Great, the new King of Dalemark. Unfortunately for Kankredin and his agent, Maewen helps to bring about the reign of Amil the Great, along with Mitt, Ynen, Moril and Kialan. Tanaqui and her brother Mallard both appear in the book too, as they are both of the Undying, although they appear with different names.

This series is complex and features a lot of both major and minor characters. I didn't enjoy The Spellcoats much, as it was quite confusing, not least because of the entry of a villain (Kankredin) who is known to both Mitt and Moril in The Crown of Dalemark, although he had not been mentioned in either of the two books in which they are the chief protagonists. However, I did enjoy Cart and Cwidder and The Crown of Dalemark, and it was interesting to see how Maewen fitted into the past, which she had learnt a lot about via history lessons in school and how she helped to bring about the future.

Of course, as is usual with DWJ's books, not everyone is as they appear to be... But I won't reveal who isn't who they say they are, as that's too big a spoiler !

1 comment:

Unknown said...

er, Tanaqui becomes the Weaver of Fates: there is not one prior to her continuing to weave after the Kankredin-crisis at her GrandFather's request. Though she learns the Art from her mother and elder sister, she becomes the nonpareil. The two narrative Spellcoats are her 'prentice-work; the more Nornesque art shown in her croft at Dropthwaite is more what you might expect from the task she accepted. _The Spellcoats_ is third in written order, but goes back to Dalemark's prehistory. _Drowned Ammet_ and _Cart & Cwidder_ are near-contemporaneous in Dalemark-time (the storm that wrecks the ship bearing Kialan and Konian happens early on in the narrative, & then two different storylines are followed) as well as being published together. _Crown of Dalemark_ came twenty years later, after many people had bent DWJ's ear about how the Interregnum would end. DWJ has some ideas of what happened to Tanaqui between the prehistoric war which ended with her Heron-brother being crowned and her time in the croft - which includes her search for Gull - and some of us have been waiting for it to coalesce into a novel for a long time.