This post is part of Diana Wynne Jones Week, August 1-7, hosted by Jenny at Jenny’s Books. Head over there to see a whole lot of posts by this really lovely YA fantasy author.
When I think Diana Wynne Jones, I usually think back to the first series I read – The Dalemark Quartet. I only have hazy memories of the plot, but remember loving the adventuresome kids, use of myth and magic, and four separate but interconnect stories about the world of Dalemark.
When Jenny announced Diana Wynne Jones Week, I decided I’d go back to the series and see if it holds up to a re-read as an adult. I only had time to read the first two – Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet – which gave me a mix of sad and excited nostalgia for the series as a whole.
Cart and Cwidder
Cart and Cwidder is the story of Moril and his family, a troupe of traveling musicians who moves freely about the battling North and South Dalemark. When Moril’s father Clennen is violently killed, the family takes refuge with a Southern lord, his mother’s former fiancé.
Soon, Moril is forced to learn the secret behind his father’s cwidder, an instrument much like a lute or guitar, that seems to have some sort of magical powers if used correctly.
Mitt is a young man living in South Dalemark with his family. After the family is evicted from the farm, Mitt joins a group of resistance fighters and becomes part of a plot to assassinate Earl Hadd, the man responsible for losing the family farm, at the yearly Sea Festival. But the plot goes wrong, forcing Mitt to flee.
At the same time, Ynen and Hildy, the Earl’s niece and nephew are watching the festival. After the assassination attempt, they run away from home, taking their little sailboat, Wind’s Road. You can guess that Mitt, Ynen, and Hildy meet up and the story goes on from there.
My first thought in reading both of these books is how short they were! Both seem to gather momentum slowly, and then end right as things were starting to get interesting. There’s a climax in both, sure, but it seems more like the start of a story than the big end of a tale.
There were lots of good things about each book though. All of the children characters were great – distinctive, thoughtful, and brave in a way that I admire in fantasy. And the adults were mostly the good kind of fantasy adults – helpful and smart without being condescending or pushy.
I also loved the world that is being set up. Cart and Cwidder does a lot of explanation of the Earls and conflict in Dalemark without it being boring, and that explanation feeds into what we know and then learn in Drowned Ammet.
But even with that, I have to admit I was a little disappointed since I remember more from the series than I felt like these books delivered.
So after finishing, I hopped on Wikipedia to skim over summaries for the final books in the series – The Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark – to see what the fuss might have been about.
I was so excited to remember something important: the books work, and are in fact awesome, when taken as a whole.
What I loved about the series as a middle schooler – and what I’d since forgotten – was the way books three and four really bring everything together. The stories of Moril and Mitt seem to drop off without conclusion in books one and two because the end of the story isn’t in those books. It’s in The Crown of Dalemark, and as a reader you have to wait for it.
I wish I’d gotten to the entire series in time for this post because I’m confident I’ll feel less disappointed and more awed with the series once I get through the next two books and get to appreciate it as whole.
Jenny, our awesome DWJ Week host, also had a post on these two books in which she articulates most of what I’d said a lot more clearly. You should be sure to go and read that, and check out other DWJ Week posts.