Saturday, June 25, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones: The Dalemark Quartet

I had a sudden urge to read some Wynne Jones, after Minimus having a phase of watching our dvd of Howl's Moving Castle again. So when we were at the library at one point during a gloriously extended weekend (thank you Christ for ascending and thank you government for 6 of June being a holiday - that was five days of work that was and a half day the day before - oh yeah, thank the union for that) I borrowed all four books of the Dalemark story.

I get a bit vexed with myself for wasting my fantasy-mad childhood reading Alexander Lloyd, who frankly is monotonous when you devour all his books at pretty much once, when I could have been reading Wynne Jones instead. Nothing and no-one is perfect, but Wynne Jones has a lovely wry sense of humour that isn't limited to goofy side-kicks. I like that. At the same time she introduces very difficult subjects in her books.

In the first one in this quartet the father in the travelling family of Singers is murdered before the eyes of his children. The mother then, who never wanted the travelling life but stayed out of loyalty, promptly returns to her noble family. The children are welcome to come too, but it's clear that she is making her choice regardless of them. A sort of coldness. In the second book a boy joins a resistance movement with terrorist leanings egged on by his feckless mother. It's clear that he too is very much on his own and that the world is full of adults prepared to murder children.

These first two introduce two different sets of people, from the free North and the controlled and ruthless South, and it's obvious that they will somehow meet and join for the conclusion. The third book however surprised me by jumping back in time, to a very distant past in the history of Dalemark.  This serves to provide a background to the mythology and culture of Dalemark. We understand who the Undying beings are who helped the children in the second book, what the foundations are for some of the common superstitions are. But as a story itself ... in a way I liked it the least, because I expected something else after reading the first two. But at the same time I liked it best, because it differed so. It follows a family of children/teenagers who have to flee their village, the only place they know. After their father's death the other villagers become increasingly suspicious of the kids, who both look and behave differently. The land is at war with some people called Invaders, and the children, whose mother was not local, resemble them. They manage to escape the mob by taking their boat down the flooding river and make for the coast.  On the way they meet the Undying and start to learn more about themselves and who they really are and what magic they can do. Our narrator is the middle daughter who has been taught to weave, and who learns how the words that she puts in the fabric of her rugcoats can help shape events while describing them. The whole thing gives an impression of a mapless age, where all beyond your village is the unknown, where the king means little except a sword - and not necessarily for protection. Despite it being a road trip story it feels tremendously claustrophobic. Maybe it's the river? The trees overhead and the hidden landscape beyond the river bends can be used to convey an oppressive feeling alright. Even towards the end when the kids are taking charge of events the feeling remains - because they're still stuck in their society, with war and death.

I must re-read it some day.

Well, book four does indeed wrap it up. It does it quite well, and start by throwing us into the future. This too is odd, because it shows a modern Dalemark with cars and pollution, despite us knowing (it is a kid's book) that the good guys win.

Um, that'll do. This post was brought to you by my HTC. I had to come back and edit it on the computer, stupidly enough. This mobile blogging doesn't leave a post looking so hot!

Edited 2011-07-04 to fix typo, see comments. Also to point out what I meant to point out before about book 4: how interesting it is with a fantasy series, which as usual is set in some sort of unspecified alternative world's PAST, that takes you into the PRESENT of that world, thus making it fairly ordinary. I meant to get that sentence in there somewhere!


li'l sis said...

I love Diana Wynne Jones =)

It's been a loooooong time since I read the Dalemark Quartet - I DID read them as a child =P - but you brought it all back to me. Really must get copies of them of my very own!

(BTW, typo in bold: "Even towards the end when the kids are taking charge of events theft feeling remains [...]")

bani said...

Darn. Bloody autocorrect. I'll fix it. But it was funny!