With Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake I am continuing my exploration of Dido Twite’s voyages and the world as it was in James III’s day, during the 1830s. This is in the nature of a taster post as I shall of course be reviewing this, the fourth of the Wolves Chronicles, and discussing the geography, history, people and peculiarities of this alternate world. Joan tells us in her prefatory note
Everybody knows that the Ancient British didn’t migrate to South America when the Saxons invaded their country; this is just my idea of what it would have been like if they had. But Brazil did get its name from the old Celtic idea that there was a beautiful magic country called Breasal’s Island, Breasail, or Hy Brasil, somewhere out in the Atlantic, west of Ireland, where the sun sets.
I would only dispute that the country of Brazil derives its name from this mythical land — it’s actually from the Portuguese pau-brazil, the red brazilwood tree — but it’s true that belief in this land, downgraded now to an island, persisted until the mid-19th century.*
The note also informs us that this book “follows the adventures of Dido Twite, after she sets sail for England at the end of Night Birds on Nantucket, and before she gets there, in The Cuckoo Tree.” But Joan calms us by reminding us that this is “a separate story, and you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.”
The Stolen Lake is possibly the richest, most vivid and most complex of the Wolves Chronicles so far. As most readers know by now, in this alternate history Uchronia and alternate Earth Utopia Joan is able to indulge her imagination to the fullest, mixing aspects of our known world in a fantastically logical what-if way. You want pirates and peg legs and treasure? You’ve got it here. You want an Austenesque comedy of manners set in Bath? This novel provides it, but with added menace (including kidnapping and violent death). You have a penchant for steampunk? Here there is that curiously anachronistic mix of costumes and technology, featuring machines galore well before their historically allotted time. You like exotic locations, customs, languages, flora and fauna? Rejoice, for these appear in plenteous profusion. Missing ancient legends transported and made relevant to more recent times? Perhaps King Arthur and Guinevere and a whole panoply of British lore, and especially Welsh traditions, transplanted wholesale to South America will plug the gap. And so on and so forth.
In 1980 Joan Aiken travelled to Australia and New Zealand, taking the time in between lectures to research the history and geography of South America. This research fed into Dido’s continuing adventures, inserted before her homecoming in The Cuckoo Tree (1971) — as also was the later Limbo Lodge (1999, Dangerous Games in the US). She had also imbibed much Welsh culture (which she’d added to her fascination with Arthurian legends) when researching for the so-called Wolves Chronicles prequel The Whispering Mountain (1968) in Brecon Public Library; naturally enough Welsh culture and history were blended in, especially bearing in mind the Welsh-speaking communities that have survived in Patagonia to the south of Argentina and which must have suggested the Arthurian elements in the novel.
All through The Stolen Lake the element binding all together will of course be Dido Twite herself, one of the great heroines of fantasy. On the cusp of her teens she continues to show the strength and vulnerability we’ve noted already in two previous novels, and she acts as both catalyst and reagent during the course of the tale. She shows perspicacity, intuition, bravery and presence of mind as suits the occasion, and is perfectly prepared to call the bluff of individuals who try to pull the wool over her eyes. She is Joan’s alter ego and the rounded personality in whom the reader invests their hopes and fears. And if you haven’t yet fallen under her spell this is as good as any of the Chronicles to start with, much as I did not long after it was published.
* Edward Brooke-Hitching: The Phantom Atlas: the greatest myths, lies and blunders on maps (Simon & Schuster 2016)