The Dalemark Quartet, Part 1

Although I have charming matched blue copies of the Dalemark Quartet, the four books in this series are not among my favorites by Diana Wynne Jones. Why then, you ask, have I chosen the Dalemark Quartet as the only books to be properly reviewed during Diana Wynne Jones Week? Mainly for the exact reason that I have not loved them in the past–I wanted to give them another chance. Another reason is that they are among Diana Wynne Jones’ early YA-fantasy books, and I like seeing writers in progress. Hearts.

In Cart and Cwidder, we meet Moril, the youngest son in a family of Singers that travels around Dalemark playing in any town they happen on. Dalemark is divided into fifteen earldoms, which are further divided into North and South Dalemark; when Moril’s family travels in the South they have to remember to be careful of what they say, for fear they will be called traitors and cast into prison. Which is kind of what happens. To help his family, Moril must use his father’s cwidder, an ancient and (in this case) mythic musical instrument whose power Moril barely understands.

Drowned Ammet takes place before Cart and Cwidder, and follows a separate set of characters, although there is some overlap in time and events. Mitt is the son of a Southern freedom fighter; when his father is betrayed by his fellow freedom fighters, Mitt vows to grow up to avenge him. He gets his chance when he is fourteen, at the annual parade to honor the folk gods Old Ammet and Libby Beer; when this goes horribly awry, he stows away on a little pleasure boat owned by the grandchildren of the Earl, Hildy and Ynen. Class tension hilarity ensues.

Can we just take it for granted that everything I say this week should be prefaced by “I love Diana Wynne Jones and”? Everything. (I love Diana Wynne Jones and) I shall now talk about the Dalemark Quartet. (I love Diana Wynne Jones and) this is my week for learning about how copyrights work. (I love Diana Wynne Jones and) it’s hot outside. Thank you.

Though these books occur fairly early in Diana Wynne Jones’s writing career, she is already writing many of the themes that will recur over and over again in later books. Particularly for Moril, but hardly less so for Mitt, self-knowledge is crucial. Mitt and Moril spend a lot of time lying, whether deliberately (Mitt deceives the freedom-fighters into believing he is loyal to them) or by circumstance (Moril does not know about any of his father’s, shall we say, extracurricular activities, until well into the book). As much as their lies have protected them, it’s made clear that they cannot carry on lying to themselves, or to the people they trust. Moril cannot make the cwidder work for him, nor Mitt work out how to proceed after becoming a wanted criminal, until each of them has confronted the truth about himself and those around him.

Another common plot element of Diana Wynne Jones’s books is the thing of stories and myths coming true. It happens to Moril and it happens to Mitt. The myths start coming to life around them, whether they believe in them/understand them/want them true or not. What I like about these books as companions to each other is that while the boys live in the same country, they occupy completely different worlds, and they live by different myths. Far from making the books feel disjointed, the side-by-side mythologies expand the world of Dalemark–a traveling Singer would have different legends than a gutter boy of the South Dales.

As I remembered from previous readings, the writing and plotting in these books is not as tight as in some of Jones’s later books–Drowned Ammet peters off rather anticlimactically. I had intended to read these two for DWJ Week and worry about the second two some other time. But when I got through with these two, I found myself unable to remember what happened in the second two books and very unhappy about it. If not Diana Wynne Jones at her peak, they are still very worthy contributions to her canon.

  • Oh, we both have the same matching blue mass market paperback copies of The Dalemark Quartet. I just haven’t read them yet. Hahaha! To think, in a DWJ-related quiz (Which DWJ Character Are You?) years back, I came up with Moril 🙂

    • Moril is rather a good character to be, I think. He is thoughtful and dreamy and of good moral character. You could do far worse!

  • I actually started Cart and Cwidder about a year ago but just wasn’t in the mood or something and ended up quitting it. I mean, I quit it REALLY early. I’m sure I will try this series again at some point.

    • I have to be in a pretty specific mood for the Dalemark books myself, and even then, they don’t live up to her usual standard. Do try it again, but there’s no big rush.

  • justbookreading

    I like to go back to books I was only meh about and see how I feel after a second reading. Sometimes I still don’t like them but I like giving them a second chance.

    My library has a ton of her books and while I’m reading Witch Week today, I think I might be checking out a few more just for the fun of it. 🙂

    • I like giving books a second chance too, but that is almost entirely down to Diana Wynne Jones, and the way her books are miles better on the second try. If not for her I think my attitude towards second chances for books would be very different.

  • I keep seeing the last book in this quartet at my local thrift store, and I keep wondering if I ought to pick it up as my very first Diana Wynne Jones.

    • I would say, dude, no, don’t do that to yourself, but I don’t think it would be the biggest catastrophe in the world. I also don’t think it would start you off with the best impression of Diana Wynne Jones. Basically if you are inclined to write off an author after one meh-type experience, The Crown of Dalemark isn’t your best bet. Otherwise, why not? as long as you keep in mind that many (I would say most) of her books are better than that one.

  • Can I say that I must be one of the last people who have not read any of her books? In fact, I didn’t even know who she was until this challenge began and I started researching her.

    • All the better for you! Now is your moment to Discover her! 😀

  • I haven’t read any of the Dalemark books yet — somehow I keep passing them over in favor of other books. They look more high fantasy than many of her other books, so I usually choose something else. I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually though.

    • Whenever I suspect I won’t like a particular book by an author I like whose backlist is extensive, I try to read that book early on. Then I still have good books ahead of me. But I can see passing these up. They aren’t any higher fantasy than most of her others, in my opinion, but they are slightly less good.

  • Now I wish I had read these for DWJ week because I have a feeling I would disagree with you on the writing! She had already been writing for quite a while when she published her early books. (Though I do remember having some problem with the battle after which Moril throws up).

    My most recent contact was when Der Mann and I read them aloud together early in our marriage. They are good for reading aloud, and sometimes that irons out wrinkles in pacing.

    I liked Drowned Ammet because it was maritime. Unusual for Jones. I’m like a collector with my little box of curiosities!

    Cwidders ARE real. I’m convinced.

    • I liked all the maritime stuff in Drowned Ammet too. I was impressed by how serious and technical it all sounded, and I wondered whether DWJ knew boats, or just sounded like it to me because I know nothing about them myself.

      I can’t remember if I read this series aloud to my sister. I did most of DWJ’s books, but I don’t think I did these ones. Maybe that’s why I like them less–there’s nothing like reading every word of a book, and seeing someone else love it in front of you, to make you feel affectionate towards it.

  • Karenlibrarian. I just wanted to reassure you. They are high fantasy, but not really. If conventions are what put you off, know they are thin in the ground in the Dalemark books. (I don’t like to call them a quartet, because she didn’t write them as part of a pre-packaged kid-lit marketing strategy, the way they do now.) And the writing style is different from typical fantasy. DWJ doesn’t have a pompous, epic bone in her body!

    • Naureen

      I totally second that. Her writing magic creeps in , it isnt on youe face, For me Dalemark series have taken top slot and I will re read them perhaps every year. I wish she was alive to treat us to her extra ordinary world.

  • That’s exactly why, when Jenny told me these weren’t the ones to start with, I abandoned my plans to get the “first” Dalemark book out of the library (I would have evidently started with the prequel, Drowned Ammet). Anytime I see four books about a fantasy land, my silent “pompous epic” alarm goes off. Glad for the reassurance that in this case it’s a false alarm.

    • It’s false! Totally false! They only look higher fantasy. There are minor resemblances to high fantasy, but the world does not really have that much magic in it. More boats and rituals and myths, than real proper magic.

  • These are the books I decided to reread for this week (review pending!), and I feel sort of the way you do without knowing that these are early in her writing. They didn’t wow me as much as I remember them wowing me as a middle schooler, but I thin maybe my favorite book of the quartet is the last one when everything sort of comes together and the characters of the first three connect (if I remember correctly). In any case, I reserved the second two from the library and am excited to read them again soon too.

    • That was my memory of the fourth one too. I think my review of the second two is scheduled for tomorrow, so you’ll be able to see my reready thoughts. The Spellcoats impressed me the most this time around, although I hated it last time–go figure.

  • I don’t even really know what a “cwidder” is but I want it to be real, too!

    • It’s an instrument! It sounds like…like a lute maybe? Something relatively portable, with strings you pluck. I don’t really know instruments that well, I’m afraid.

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  • Gertrude

    Oh no! Sorry for the late reply, but i have never had great fondness for the Dalemark Quartet either (except Cart and Cwidder, because Moril is ♥), only i have been rereading them lately and was struck by the Spellcoats (book 3) – i tried to find a review of this on your site and could not! Anyway, i think the way in which this is told, and Tanaqui’s voice, and just the general feel is really excellent! Standing apart from the rest of the Dalemark quartet i mean, and from the rest of DWJ’s books in general. (It reminds me of the end of Deep Secret when Nick is talking about Babylon which I feel is one of the most magical/meaningful/wonderful parts of Deep Secret).

    This comment is very garbled but I just wanted to point out the unexpected wonderfulness of The Spellcoats and hoped you might possibly agree with me because i might like it almost as much as Fire and Hemlock/Deep Secret/Hexwood (maybe…?!).

  • Gertrude

    oh dear so embarrassing my site navigating is poor, you already reviewed The Spellcoats/liked it, but i wanted also to say that I have been so disappointed by DWJ’s recent books eg. The Game/House of Many Ways (Pinhoe Egg/Conrad’s Fate were alright, but they are Chrestomanci so different i suppose). The characters just seemed to…not be characters, especially in the Game, which to me seemed extremely shallow and under developed. I can only think that she had too many ideas about stories and not enough time to write them, which prompted her to churn out lesser quality works. But I was so disappointed, even with House of Many Ways, which I feel is weaker than the other two in the series (though tbh I never liked the entire Howl series nearly as much as most of her other books).

    What are your thoughts on her new books? And is Enchanted Glass worth reading? I almost felt like I was reading a different author with The Game. I was shocked…! I feel so embarrassed to be commenting so late on this post again but dwj♥ : (

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