Joan Aiken The Stolen Lake
Red Fox 2005 (1981)
It is 1835 and Dido Twite is heading back to England from Nantucket Island on board HMS Thrush. Or so she thinks: she has been at sea for most of the 18 months since she was shipwrecked in the North Sea at the end of 1833, and can’t wait to get back to London and her friend Simon. But things aren’t going to plan. First pirates and a rebel ship have to be dealt with, and then she finds that the naval vessel has been sent two thousand miles down the eastern coast of South America to go to the aid of Britain’s oldest ally. And her real troubles start just as soon as she sets foot in New Cumbria.
New Cumbria? This is not a country known in our world, but it does exist in the alternate world of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s highly idiosyncratic series set in a world where Victoria didn’t rule in Britain but where the Stuart king James III did. We have to sweep away all that we thought we knew about the 19th century — and indeed previous history — and accept that we are in a parallel existence where, instead of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, we hear of Biru, Hy Brasil, Lyonesse and New Cumbria.
On arrival in the sleepy port of Tenby Dido gets scrobbled (and not for the last time), escapes, travels up the River Severn on a tidal bore, takes a rack-and-pinion railway up past a series of cataracts before arriving at Bath Regis, a town ringed by twelve volcanoes. Here she gets to meet the monstrous Queen Ginevra in her revolving palace before embarking on more escapades to rescue a princess and help restore the rightful king to his throne. And that’s merely the half of it: we have yet to understand the mystery of the lake that’s been stolen, why no children exist in this realm, and who the sinister trio of seamstresses are that bedevil Dido’s life.
Joan Aiken has imaginatively amalgamated aspects of disparate traditions, cultures that ought to clash, to create her fantastic and yet consistent world. There is Arthurian legend of course (Malory’s Morte Darthur is wantonly plundered for the names of volcanoes, for example, for motifs like Excalibur and the myth of Arthur’s return); Celtic culture (inspired no doubt by the historical Welsh influx into Patagonia); Inca history and lore (names from the eve of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru are purloined, and the belief that the outline of Lake Titicaca resembles a native big cat); a hint of Jane Austen (Bath is routinely referenced, and also Tenby which appears in her juvenilia); and perhaps hints of explorations such as those by Sir Walter Raleigh, Percy Fawcett and the fictional Professor Challenger for lost cities like El Dorado.
If Dido Twite is the glue that binds the convoluted plot of The Stolen Lake, then South America itself — under the guise of Roman America — is the undoubted canvas on which Aiken paints this tall tale full of conspiracies and narrative twists. Not only do we have the full range of flora and fauna filling its teeming jungles and arid plains but a host of additional life-forms to inhabit them. Aiken has borrowed profusely from all over the continent’s geography to create her imaginary lands: mountain ranges and volcanoes, rivers and waterfalls, deserts and lakes, jungles and glaciers. It’s possible to suggest many of the real natural features that inspired her, though she has freely moved them around her landscape and telescoped huge distances.
Finally, though Dido is our constant companion throughout, we come across many another strange character who not only linger in our memories but also put in an appearance in later novels. Sadly, some individuals meet very gruesome ends, for whom we feel very sorry indeed, but you will be glad to know — if you hadn’t guessed already — that Dido survives. Well, she has to: Aiken had already resuscitated her once before in response to appeals.
As before with previous instalments in the Wolves Chronicles, this review will be followed by related posts on the people and places, history and themes that occur in The Stolen Lake. There will be spoilers galore but also much to explain that might at first appear obscure.