Cart & Cwidder
Originally published in 1975. I really wish I had read this short novel as a kid. I still enjoyed reading it now, but I think it would have been one of my favorite books if I had read it at a younger age.
Although a YA novel, with a fun and fast-moving, adventurous tone, this book doesn't shy away from ‘heavier' emotional issues and political situations.
The feudal land of Dalemark is divided, and the South is extremely politically repressive. But people depend on traveling minstrels for not only entertainment but news and mail delivery – so entertainers have a more free rein than most. Moril has spent his whole life traveling and performing with his family from a horse-drawn cart, singing and playing the cwidder across the land.
But when his father is murdered by a group of richly-dressed men, his mother immediately chooses to return to the stable, well-to-do suitor that she left for a musician years before. Moril and his brother and sister, driven both by suspicions that their mother's new beau had something to do with the murder, and a lack of enthusiasm for a bourgeois lifestyle, take the cart and strike out on their own, agreeing to take the young man who had been their family's passenger to his destination in the North.
More trouble awaits than they had bargained on however, as secrets regarding an underground political movement are revealed, and the children realize that their life was not all the happy-go-lucky glamour that it seemed. Soon they're well in over their heads – which makes it convenient that Moril's inherited cwidder, reputed to have belonged to the legendary bard Osfameron, may have more-than-simply-musical powers.
Takes place at the same time as the previous novel, but with different characters.
In South Dalemark, after their landlord conspires to throw his family off their farm, a boy named Mitt must struggle to fit into town life, as his mother works hard (but uses her money spendthrift-ly) and his father gets involved in an illegal revolutionary movement.
When the political group is betrayed, Mitt, with the encouragement of his mother, devotes himself to becoming a double agent – involved with his father's group, but secretly bent on betraying those inside the group that he believes sold out his father. His allegiances are difficult, as one of those men treats him like a son, and in addition, his stepfather seems to offer him a respectable, straight-and-narrow path. But Mitt is obsessed with his plan to blow up the Earl during the festival of Ammet and to blame his radical compatriots for the crime.
But nothing turns out quite the way he planned, and Mitt finds himself on a sea voyage with two rich kids, and with the involvement of two pagan/folk-type supernatural figures, Ammett himself and the fertility goddess(?) Libby Beer, Mitt will have to grow, face some truths, and make some hard decisions about his path.
At first, this story seems to have little relationship to the two before it. It's not till the very end that it's revealed that it takes place in Dalemark – but during near-prehistoric times. The society portrayed is very primitive, perhaps analogous to Bronze Age tribes in Britain. When most of the men of a village go off to fight a war against some blond invaders, the pale, fair looks passed down to one family's children by their mysterious, foreign(?) mother make them a target of fear and superstition.
They escape their threatening neighbors, bringing only their household gods with them in a boat down the river – but these gods turn out to be more than the reader might have assumed, as they embark on a journey of danger and magic, which will lead them not only to the center of the conflict between two tribes, but to the greater threat posed to all by an evil, soul-catching sorcerer.
The narrator is a young woman who tells the story through her complicated weaving, setting her tale down in a textile coat. To her people, these ‘spellcoats' have both traditional and magical powers, and the record of her story will become essential to her story...
The Crown of Dalemark
In this last book, many of the elements of ‘The Spellcoats' become more clear, as it is shown that many of the characters and gods mentioned in that story have become part of Dalemark's mythology and legends – it explains why it was decided to print it there, out of chronological order!
Here, Maewen, a young girl from ‘modern' Dalemark is convinced/tricked to go 200 years back in time and impersonate a young woman who has disappeared – but who was convinced that gods spoke to her and that she was destined to be Queen of all Dalemark, reuniting the conflict-riven North and South. Maewen has doubts about this, as she meets characters that she was familiar with from paintings that she saw displayed of famous people from Dalemark's history – but she has never heard anything about this supposedly-important young ‘Queen.'
Still, she feels she has very little choice but to go along with it, and as time goes on, she finds herself becoming emotionally involved in the situation she finds herself in – one that, for the reader, is yet more entertaining, because it involves characters we've met before in the other novels collected here.
All four of these books are good, and although they're not precisely part of a ‘series,' they go well together.
I think the appeal of Wynne Jones' books is that she believes strongly in ‘good' – and this comes through in all of her stories. But, at the same time, she has neither a simplistic view of the world or the naïve expectation that everything will go as it should or that authority can be trusted.