Drowned Ammet (1977)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
in The Dalemark Quartet, Vol 1.
Greenwillow / Eos 2005.
People may wonder how Mitt came to join in the Holand Sea Festival, carrying a bomb, and what he thought he was doing. Mitt wondered himself by the end.Chapter 1.
With this dramatic opening paragraph Diana Wynne Jones began the second book of what became known as the Dalemark Quartet – even though the last book wasn’t published till 1993 and, appearing fourteen years after The Spellcoats, evidently an afterthought. As with many of her series – Chrestomanci, Howl, or Fantasyland for example – she steadfastly avoided repeating herself, studiously refusing to conform to expectations that a sequel would merely be more of the same.
Here the events of the first Dalemark novel, Cart and Cwidder, are merely distant rumours, with none of those protagonists referred to by name even though the action is more or less contemporaneous in both. This means that Drowned Ammet can be treated on its own merits even though set in the same world – and that’s how I propose to deal with it now, almost as if it’s a standalone novel.
As Cart and Cwidder is structured round a journey (by cart, of course) from the south of the subcontinent of Dalemark to the north, so Drowned Ammet finds young Mitt also travelling in the same general direction, but this time by sea. He has had dreamlike inklings of a land somewhere northwards from a young age, and feels drawn towards it though he has no knowledge of it. That dream land is in stark contrast to his life in South Dalemark where warring earls and crippling taxes force his parents, one after another, to travel to Holand [sic] to eke out a living.
When his father is presumed dead following a failed revolutionary coup and his mother marries a gunsmith, Mitt determines to become a revolutionary himself and thus avenging his father’s death on whoever betrayed him. Instead he finds himself on the run with two siblings from one of the hated noble families, sailing into the unknown after his own failed attempt at assassination. And what begins as a familiar tale of realism becomes touched with intimations of divine influences.
In a similar way to Moril’s experience in Cart and Cwidder, Mitt’s long and dangerous physical voyage is shadowed by an inner journey as he comes to terms with who he is, what he stands for, where he is coming from and how he stands in relationship to friends, family, acquaintances, enemies and the demiurges that shape his world. Though we hear distant news of Moril’s achievements and wonder if the paths of both Mitt and Moril may be destined to cross in a future book, the author will disdain to stoop to predictable outcomes; as with many of her fantasies Jones is concerned with realistic human relationships and individual dilemmas, and that often leads to the kinds of messy outcomes we find in daily life.
When I first read the first two Dalemark tales it was certainly delightful to read them back to back and to live the experiences of these two protagonists through their eyes, as it were. While the geography and physics of this world may seem strange to us, and the technology veer from high medieval to early modern, there is no doubting that they are about real human beings recognisable from our own world, and with and for whom we can feel affinity and affection, and occasionally antagonism. I also think that Mitt’s parents – along with Hildy and Ynen, the two companion runaways he frequently squabbles with – owe much to the author’s own emotionally distant parents and her two lively sisters: it may be significant that Drowned Ammet was dedicated to her mother.
And this being fantasy, there is of course an element of magic and the supernatural: the title refers to a corn dolly figure which, along with another composed of fruits, is ritually consigned to the sea at Holand but which manifests differently the closer the young protagonists get to the Holy Islands. I constantly marvel at how the author was able to render the fantastic believable and immanent in certain of her characters, whether in epic fantasies like this or more domestic situations.
Here may be a good place to mention the useful map prepared by David Cuzic that appeared in the Greenwillow omnibus edition and which provides a rudimentary but indispensible counterpart to the clues contained in the text.
Revised and expanded from a review of Drowned Ammet with Cart and Cwidder in Volume One of The Dalemark Quartet, published by Eos / Greenwillow Books (1995), and first posted 30th April 2013. Posted as part of Wyrd and Wonder’s annual celebration of the fantastic.