There’s too much blame mysterious about this island.
— Dido’s observation in chapter 6
This is another post in the series giving the background to one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Limbo Lodge. This instalment focuses on the islanders of Aratu, the island that Dido finds so full of mysteries. I can’t help being reminded of some of the issues that are raised in novels like Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Alison Croggon’s The River and the Book, issues about land exploitation and deforestation and the effects they have on local populations and ways of life. In Limbo Lodge we sense there may be some rapprochement between communities towards the end, a rapprochement that sadly doesn’t seem to be common in our own world.
Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008
A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.
But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.
Are you wondering what’s happened to Dido Twite, the engaging young heroine of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles? Yes? Then read on. No? Still, do keep reading, because if you’re a fan of the Brontës you may find the following note of interest!
Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it.
— Interview with Joan Aiken, Locus Magazine (May 1998)
Inverted Commas 2: The modern world viewed alternatively
In May 1998 Joan Aiken was interviewed for Locus Magazine, which now bills itself as The Magazine and Website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field. An excerpt from that interview is available online, entitled ‘Joan Aiken: Wolves and Alternate Worlds’. Soon to be published at the time of the interview was another episode in her Wolves Chronicles, Limbo Lodge (1999), titled Dangerous Games in the US.
I quote this passage because, in times of great ferment, many people feel powerless in the face of forces larger than themselves. Certain powerful individuals do seem to have a vision of where the world is going (even if it’s only back to a past viewed through distorting spectacles) but many others, who don’t share this vision, sense themselves in a living nightmare, rushed towards some malign future where nothing is certain — except that nothing will be certain.
Yet more now on Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake, to the possible delight of fans of the Wolves Chronicles and the certain dismay of everyone else.
We left Dido Twite at the port of Tenby, at the mouth of the River Severn in Roman America. (New readers will no doubt be confused so it’s best they consult the previous post to discover what exactly is going on. Otherwise this post will make little or no sense.) Tenby being the only entry to New Cumbria, it will require a journey of some 200 miles to get to the country’s capital, Bath Regis. But trying to relate Roman America to its model, Latin America, will prove rather difficult — distances simply refuse to tally up — and therefore all linear measurements will need to be taken with a exceptionally liberal pinch of salt.
It’s time for another update on the world of Dido Twite according to the account in Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake. We’ve had an overview, and we’ve looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’). It remains for us to examines the themes that the author touches on (the ‘what’), but right now we’re going to look at the novel’s geography (the ‘where’).
Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.
To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.