The Crown Of Dalemark
by Diana Wynne Jones
in the Dalemark Quartet.
Oxford University Press, 2003 (1993).
where past and present meet and,
maybe, all’s resolved.
Young Mitt is from South Dalemark, but when he escapes its politics and intrigues he finds that the North is equally dangerous because he is manoeuvred into an assassination attempt on a pretender to the crown of Dalemark.
This novel’s plot also turns on a present-day girl, Maewen, who gets propelled into Dalemark’s past to play a role not of her own choosing, in a narrative that’s reminiscent of the premise in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper or Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.
And the Crown (which is more of a circlet than a fancy coronet)? That turns out to be not just a metaphor for gaining a throne but also part of a theme that mingles together motifs from modern Tarot imagery, the medieval quest for the Grail, and the curse of immortality.
As in the previous titles of the series the reader is here treated to extensive exploration of the troubled realm of Dalemark, particularly the northwestern corner between Adenmouth and Kernsburgh; I loved the chance to further explore the geography of Dalemark and to relate the present-day state of the region with the Late Medieval / Early Modern feel of the chronologically intermediate novels, two centuries before the ‘present day’ – a modern Dalemark which is both familiar and more magical compared to our own world. Above all there is a strong sense of a Northern European milieu, from the mix of Scandinavian- and Celtic-influenced names to the physical features of the polities and emerging industrial innovations.
Characters from The Spellcoats, Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet re-emerge to play crucial parts in the unfolding story. Along with the tying-together of some unresolved threads curiosity grows concerning how characters such as Mitt and Moril, whom we learnt to sympathise with in the intermediate books, will interact with Maewen especially now that they growing from adolescence into adulthood, and whether they will retain our sympathy.
I savoured Jones’ usual little wordgames and puns; typical of these is the entity Kankredin (wonderfully but chillingly conjured up in the novel and reminiscent of a malevolent djinn from The Arabian Nights) whose name has echoes of ‘canker’, a malign growth. Key themes also re-emerge in this novel, such as journeys undertaken with a sense of urgency with danger in pursuit: previously it was on a river in flood, along roads followed by a travelling show, and a desperate journey by sea, but now it’s a quest to find regal objects – ring, cup, sword and crown – where characters’ motivations are always in doubt.
As with so many of Jones’ young adult fantasies there at first appear to be a few apparent inconsistencies, blemishes or loose ends perhaps, that mar her superb story-telling skills: her endings are so often confusing, as when the final resolution involves obscure verbal logic that even several re-readings rarely make clear. She also frequently hints at things without being explicit so that you are left to fill in the gaps without ever being sure that your gut feelings ultimately are correct. This comes largely from her using familiar folk- and fairy-tale types and motifs which raise our expectations, only to have them dashed or circumvented when she subverts the conventional tropes.
And yet, on revisiting all the series in close succession, pretty much all that confusion fades away in the final scenes of this volume; Jones ensures that her early teen heroine has a clear relationship with the Undying – the immortals in this series – to look forward to. As the author said before this novel was published, because “the hero, the protagonist, is the story” she’d had for the previous decade difficulties in completing the series quartet since “the end of [each] book is the end of the important things I have to say about the central character.” Until she’d decided on a new character – Maewen – characters in the previous novels who’d had unfinished stories “several thousand years apart” had to wait to put in their appearance.
I must say I really enjoyed The Crown of Dalemark on several levels. I engaged with the main protagonists, Maewen, Mitt and Moril, all three with their very human strengths and failings, as well with most of the rest of the cast of characters, some of whom we have met previously and whose personalities have evolved (not always for the better). The convoluted plot always draws the reader on – providing of course that they play close attention to what they’re being told and don’t blink at inopportune times. As a finale it’s as engaging as each of its predecessors, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
The quotes are from ‘A Whirlwind Tour of Australia’ (1992) included in Reflections (Greenwillow Books 2012). First read July 2011. Repost of review first published here 7th May 2013, now revised and expanded after a reread for Wyrd and Wonder