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.