Of all the Diana Wynne Jones books I've read and loved, the Dalemark Quartet are unique. They are the most emotive and made me feel the stress of the characters. The Dalemark Quartet is epic fantasy with quests, traveling musicians, mages (good and evil), cruel tyrannical earls, and a country in peril desperately wanting a king to unite it. As with everything she writes, Diana Wynne Jones has added her own unique twist.
These are the newest Oxford University Press covers (the books have had many different covers).
Dalemark is a country divided and in trouble. In the North people have freedom, but there are not many resources. In the South there is an abundance of wealth, but it is all in the hands of ruthless earls. The people are hungry and enslaved, living in fear. Singers tell stories of a time when the country was united under a great king who was assisted my a musician mage thought to be one of the Undying.
In your run of the mill epic fantasy of this type you would expect a young hero to be introduced in the first book who would be given an important quest leading through all the volumes to happy Dalemark, defeated evil, and a new king. But this is Diana Wynne Jones so you can toss everything you expect out the window. The first book does introduce a young hero and he has companions on a journey full of peril and magic. But then the second book introduces an entirely different hero...on a journey...with some companions...with magic and peril. Then there's the third book which tells an entirely different story with heroes, a journey, peril, magic etc. The fourth book brings together elements from all three books to create a story about, you guessed it, companions on a journey full of peril and magic. This time though there is also TIME TRAVEL. Yes, time travel. And because this is Diana Wynne Jones it works and is brilliant.
Cart and Cwidder is the story of a family of traveling musicians, or Singers. They are from the North but because they are Singers they are allowed to travel through the South to earn a living. This is dangerous work and there are certain songs they can not sing for fear of being accused of stirring rebellion. The youngest member of this family is a boy named Moril. He plays the cwidder and is excited that the family is traveling North for the remainder of the year. Along the way they pick up a paying passenger by the name of Kialan. Danger and intrigue haunt their every step north. After a tragic event Moril is given responsibility of the family legacy, an old cwidder believed to have the power of Osfameron, the mage musician of old, in it. Moril must learn how to harness and use this power to protect those he loves, but he learns that the responsibility for such a powerful object comes with a great cost. Through the eyes of young Moril the reader is given a concise clear picture of the workings of both regions of Dalemark and the history of how this came to be. I loved the political intrigue and workings of this novel. Moril, Kialan and Moril's sister, Brid, were characters that I could root for. I really cared what happened to them and my heart hurt for them all many times during the book.
Drowned Ammet focuses on life in the South of Dalemark. The events in this book overlap chronologically with the first but, other than a quick cameo by Kialan, none of the characters overlap. This is a book about a boy named Mitt who, after a few short happy years of childhood, grew up in the slums of Holand. The people in Holand are repressed and miserable and Mitt decides to join a group of freedom fighters after his father is killed by the Earl's men. His goal in life is to assassinate the Earl. When this plan goes horribly wrong he finds himself fleeing for his life with the unexpected company of two of the Earl's grandchildren, Hildy and Ynen. Their adventures are of the sea faring sort and thoroughly engrossing. This book builds on the world building in the first. More history is revealed but more is also revealed about the nature of the mysterious Undying. Mitt is a completely different sort of hero than Moril. He is far more complex. I confess he is my favorite of all the characters, so I really liked this book. Mitt's inner conflict of who and what he wants to be drives this story and a major theme explored is that choices make a person who they are, not circumstances.
The Spellcoats is a prequel in that it goes back in time hundreds of years from the first two books. It should not be read before them though. This book is third in the series for a reason, each book builds on the other, explaining more and more of the world. Dalemark is being invaded and the five children of Closti the Clam are forced to flee their village when the neighbors see them as the reason for their problems. The children, taking after their mother, bear more of a resemblance to the invaders than the native people. The story is told by Tanaqui, the second youngest child. She is a talented weaver and weaves the story into two Spellcoats that tell of this important time in Dalemark's history. An evil mage named Kankredin is trying to harness the power of the One, greatest of the Undying, who foolishly allowed himself to be bound. Tanaqui and her siblings must figure out how to unbind the One and defeat Kankredin before Dalemark is destroyed. Along the way they learn some interesting truths about their own family. I really enjoyed the ancient atmosphere of this book. The setting and language gives it an older feel than the other books and I thought this was well done. The book is mythopoeic and gives a clearer image of the Undying and the role they play in the lives of the people of Dalemark.
The Crown of Dalemark picks up nearly a year after Drowned Ammet ends. Mitt, now living in the North, has been ordered to assassinate a young woman named Noreth who is claiming to be the daughter of the One and the true Queen of Dalemark. Mitt just wants to keep the people he cares about, particularly Ynen, safe. Yet he has the problem of actually liking Noreth and having a hearty dislike of killing anyone. He joins Noreth on her journey on the King's Road along with Moril, who is also quite taken with her. Problem is, by this point she is not actually Noreth but Maewen, a girl from modern Dalemark, that Kankredin has magicked back in time to take her place. This is his new attempt to take over the country. Maewen, fortunately, is the daughter of the national historian so she knows enough about when she is to muddle through. The group journeys on the King's Road to gather a ring, a cup, a sword and the crown that the true ruler will need to make the claim for the throne. This is a crazy concept but it worked for me. I thought the execution of it was excellent. Mitt is a central character again so that also made me happy. I really do love him. I also loved how he and Moril interacted and the way their relationship evolved. Maewen was a great addition to the cast of characters. Smart, quick thinking, and strong she held her own as the only female amidst all these men very well. The end of this book left me thinking about the story long after I finished it.
All together the books are action packed, full of interesting characters, and have excellent world building. The themes explored about honor, choice, destiny, war, and friendship make great food for thought.
I say this every time I review a DWJ book but, it bears repeating, I love that she doesn't condescend to her readers. Even when the story is as complex as this one she allows the reader to find their own way through the world and that is what makes reading them such a remarkable experience. There is no hand holding, like the characters you are plunged into situations where you know nothing and must figure it out as you go. It fires the imagination like nothing else can.