The Dalemark Quartet, Part 2

Dalemark! Onward! As you will recall, the country is split by North and South, the South full of angry earls who do not like to hear talk of free speech, and the North full of angry earls who do not mind it so much. There are gods, called the Undying, who continue to take a lively if unpredictable interest in the doings of Dalemark and its occupants.

The Spellcoats jumps us back several thousand years into Dalemark’s past. Our narrator Tanaqui and her four siblings are forced out of their own village in a time of war, as they do not look like the other villagers and are believed to be Heathens or witches or both. As they travel, they gradually come to realize that the true enemy is not the Heathen but an enchanter called Kankedrin, who seeks to control the land and its gods and its people.

In The Crown of Dalemark, we are back with Mitt, who feels lost and lonely in the North, and still more so when an Earl orders him to assassinate a girl called Noreth who appears to be preparing a claim to the long-defunct throne of Dalemark. Two hundred years into Mitt’s future, a girl called Maewen is asked to go and take Noreth’s place as history unfolds; and without much ceremony, she is thrown into the middle of the political turmoil of Noreth’s life. Trying to do her best to masquerade as Noreth, she travels through Dalemark firming up her claim to the throne, accompanied by both Mitt and Moril.

The Spellcoats is about a group of really, really different siblings working together on something while growing into the adults they’re going to be, which I love. I cannot imagine why I didn’t care for it before! It’s done so beautifully! Tanaqui’s brother Hern is the same person all through the book, but the commander-of-armies Hern as the book nears its end has changed tremendously from the Hern who prayed to the Undying to be able to go fight the Heathen with his father at the beginning. It is one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best tricks, this true, natural growing up of her characters.

By contrast, the characters in The Crown of Dalemark seem to have done most of their growing up already. We see little out of Mitt that we haven’t seen before: his circumstances change (dramatically!), but we don’t really see the outcome of that change on him. The same is true of Maewen: her life changes and she stays the same. There is little of that growing self-awareness and its attendant strength that characterizes nearly all of Diana Wynne Jones’s protagonists. Not to say that the plot of the book isn’t interesting (it is! and it brings together dangling threads from all three previous books!), just that the characters do not get to grow as dramatically as I would like them to.

In my memory, The Spellcoats was easily the weakest of the Dalemark books, and The Crown of Dalemark easily the strongest. Not at all what I found reading through them again. I think I must be wanting different things out of books now than I was when I read these last.

I feel like I read somewhere that Diana Wynne Jones said she couldn’t write a sequel to Crown of Dalemark until she figured out what happens with Tanaqui at the end of The Spellcoats. I wish she would. I want her to do her growing-up trick to Mitt and Moril. They have had many bad things in their lives, and I am curious what they are like as grown-ups. This really speaks to Diana Wynne Jones’s skill at characterization–you truly feel they have a life beyond the story, and you wish you were in on it.

(I love Diana Wynne Jones and) I am so pleased I reread these books. It was a completely new reading experience to what I remember, and that was grand.

22 thoughts on “The Dalemark Quartet, Part 2

  1. One thing I love about your posts this week? “(I love Diana Wynne Jones and)”.

    I read the Dalemark Quartet quite a while ago, but what I remember strongest about the books is the first person trick DWJ pulled off in “The Spellcoats”. I’m not normally a first-person fan, but that… That was amazing.

    And now I wish there was a fifth book too…

    • I don’t have a problem with first-person–I’m always curious why other people do. Does it feel contrived to you (in general), or you don’t like being that close to the characters, or what?

      • I suppose ‘contrived’ is a way of putting it, yes. I love being close to the characters, but most of the first person narratives I encounter manages to push me away from them. Third person limited allows me to get just as close to a character, if not closer.

        Here are some of my thoughts on it. You’ve read them ages ago, though. ^-^

        Most all first person narratives I’ve read fail to deliver that sense of inclusion. It just reads like third person that’s been edited to resemble first person.

        First person narratives can be some of the most powerful, immersive, beautiful, amazing povs that ever could be writ and, well, most first person narratives I’ve read take one look at what they could be and run screaming in the other direction. It’s such a shame, especially when a first person story has promise.

        It’s not that I don’t/can’t enjoy first person narratives – I can and I do – but… for me the fact that a book is written in first person isn’t an automagical way to get close to a character. I used to think that maybe that lack of a desire for closeness was my issue with the pov, but it’s not. It actually tends to put up a barrier and keep me from connecting to the narrator.

        One day I’ll have figured out all my dos and don’ts for first person… ^-^

      • That’s right, that’s right, I remember! You like them to be conversational–which is certainly true of Tanaqui, so your theory holds true in this case. I forgot! I was going to pay attention to that! #makesnote

  2. Spellcoats always seems to be the one of the four Dalemark books which I like the most – but like you the series is the one of DWJ’s I read the least.

    What’s your opinion of The Power of Three – another of the early novels, but I think one of the strongest.

    And thank you for this spotlight. DWJ has long been my favourite author, and I’m always glad to see others loving her.

    • I love Power of Three. It’s one of the very few books by Diana Wynne Jones that I liked enormously the first time I read it. I love it when she puts us in an unfamiliar world, and then shows us our world from the perspective of an outsider. I agree, that might be her strongest early book.

  3. I saw one of the Dalemark books in the library but I thought it was the middle of a series so I didn’t grab it. Isn’t it fun to reread and discover new things you love about a book?

    • Grr. This is exactly why I don’t like the post-Harry-Potter-esque repackaging of these books as sets. [harumphs and stumps off like stumpy old bluestocking]

      Seriously, Diana Wynne Jones is one of those rare authors whose books set in the same world can be read in pretty much any order you like. Each contains has a full plot arc, and unless I am forgetting something, very few spoilers for previous events.

    • I agree with Trapunto except that I do love a matching set, of anything really. If anyone ever came out with a complete set of Diana Wynne Jones, that matched, I would empty my bank account for it. It’s a failing.

      Apart from The Crown of Dalemark, which I really think would be better with the knowledge of the foregoing books, I say feel free to start with any of the books in the quartet.

    • I wish I could be! I’ve read nearly all of them at least five times, and even though I know in my mind that there are tons of them, it feels like very few because I’ve read them all, now. :/

  4. The scene of Maewin on the train was excruciating! It made me think of what DWJ had said about most of her protagonists being boys because her physical memories of being a teenaged girl were too overwhelmingly distracting to make her comfortable writing from inside the skin of one–something like that, except, being DWJ, much cleverer and more comprehensible!

    Now I’m doubting myself. Was it Mitt or Moril who threw up after the battle? (You can tell I am unhealthily obsessed with that scene, because it seemed a very un-DWJ convention to me)

    Spellcoats is the book in which Jones reminds me most of Ursula Le Guin–not a comparison I’d usually make at all.

    • I want to say it was Moril. But it wasn’t because it was a proper battle, it was because he rearranged all the land with his cwidder after the horse got shot. So I didn’t mind it. I think I would probably throw up after a battle myself.

      I haven’t read enough Ursula K. Le Guin to speak to that, but from the one book of hers I have read, I can see the similarity.

  5. I may need to give these another try. I remember them being very disappointing because everyone seemed to forget all the things they’d learned the book before.

    But it’s been years, and you’re saying that they don’t, and I have only read them once.

    • Yes, try them again, but be prepared to be disappointed in The Crown of Dalemark. I was a little crushed at how anticlimactic I found it, and how mean Hildy became. It took me a little while to get ahold of it, so I was anticipating it enormously, and then I felt let down when I did read it.

    • It’s why I’m always excited when she writes sequels: they focus on different characters to the originals, so we get to see those people in their lives, and we get to see the original characters from a new angle. Fun!

  6. Interesting that you find The Spellcoats the weakest of the quartet – for me, it was only with The Spellcoats that it really clicked with me and I went from my standard ‘I love this because it’s DWJ and it’s awesome’ to ‘Oh my goodness I really love this because it’s AWESOME’, which are kind of my two levels of DWJ love. I enjoyed Cart & Cwidder and Drowned Ammet a lot, but it was when she suddenly expanded the world with The Spellcoats and then it all came to glorious fruition in The Crown of Dalemark that I really adored the quartet as a whole. Although I do concede that it took me a while to get my head into Spellcoats space :)

    • I don’t, I don’t. I only used too. I remember not liking it so much, but this reread I found it to be the best of the four, by a pretty solid margin. I never warmed to Robin, but I felt really fond of all the other siblings.

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