This is a long ‘un, folks.
Let me begin this with a confession: I am rating this book more by nostalgia than truth. It’s a horrible choice, I know. It inflates the rating and gives first-time readers a false impression. But, frankly my dears, I don’t give a damn.
I read the Dalemark Quartet when I was in my early teens, and I ADORED them with every fiber of my sheltered, book-obsessed being. I re-read them three or four times in that year alone. But oh, how the mighty have fallen! Why, OH WHY did I feel I needed to re-read these a decade later? Why couldn’t I just be happy with my vague but joyful recollections? Maybe it’s because my memory is like a sieve, and all I could remember was that I liked them. Or maybe because re-reading books is, for me, like cuddling a blankie and sucking my thumb. A little of column a, a little of column b, perhaps.
To the point, this last volume is problematic, in many ways that can all pretty much be summed up in a simple statement: Diana Wynne Jones, for all her talent, just didn’t know how to end what she had started. After discussing her work with some friends who have read her as well, I’ve come to the realization that Jones’ endings are nearly always weak in comparison to her other abilities. Dalemark is a beautifully constructed world, with a realistic political and historical structure supporting it, and the stories are populated with believable characters that grow and change before our eyes. But the execution of the plot, particularly in important, revelatory moments and conclusions, is lacking.
The overall series is constructed, as the name implies, in four parts. Rather than building a straightforward, “part 1, part 2 etc.” story arc structure, Jones divided the books into “types.” What I mean is each volume has a particular function to play in the overall story beyond merely propelling it forward. Like any introductory installment, Cart and Cwidder is responsible for easing readers into an unfamiliar (but not too unfamiliar) world and allowing us to meet characters without being plunged headfirst into the deep end. We meet a starring character and his family, learn about the basic divisions of Dalemark, and see what kind of state the land and its people are in. We also get a brief glimpse into the belief structure of the culture, but only in snatches and never with any deep understanding. Moving on to Drowned Ammet, we meet more important characters, like Mitt, who I adore, and see a different portion of the world, but the character types are remarkably different than in the preceding volume and this is the installment that really opens up the mythological and political aspects of the story that will be important later on. And then Jones throws us a curveball. The third part of the tale, The Spellcoats, is a prequel, going way back into prehistoric times to both clarify what we have already learned, and set-up the larger struggle of the last volume. Some people have complained that this sudden reversal in the arc is disorienting. I disagree; I thought it was rather brilliant.
Now, after all this set-up, all the world building and intricate weaving of character and destiny, we arrive at the Crown of Dalemark to see how it will all end. When I was younger, I thought this book was a revelation. You see, I had never experienced a story told in quite this way before. Three tenuously connected volumes brought magically and completely together in a grand dénouement? It was like looking at the back of a tapestry through three books, only to turn it over and see pictures that suddenly made sense. It was like that back then, anyway. Now? There are still moments of brilliance and originality. This book is still worth reading, I mean it! But the weaknesses, the threadbare patches and dropped stitches (if we beat this tapestry comparison to death), are glaringly obvious to me in a way they couldn’t have been then.
Crown brings Moril from Cart & Cwidder, Mitt, Navin, Hildy and Ynen from Drowned Ammet, and even a few characters from The Spellcoats that I won’t spoil here, together with a new addition to the dramatis personae in the form of Noreth, a young girl who may be the key to uniting Dalemark after 200 years of division. Or she may be a raving lunatic with powerful friends, it’s hard to say. Regardless of who Noreth really is, the earls have held power too long to give it up to anyone, so Mitt is coerced into being a reluctant assassin and sent to travel with her on her journey to collect the fabled items that are to support her claim to the long-vacant throne of Dalemark. Of course, in true fantasy form, the objects are a ring, a cup and a crown. And then things get very odd indeed. The story thus far has had magic and myth aplenty, but Jones shakes things up even further by introducing time travel.
A visitor from the future joins the motley band on their search for the mythic objects that will give Noreth a chance at the throne. Now, this is where some of those problematic things I mentioned come into play. Time travel is always tricky; the magic system “explains” away all of the problems I may have had with the overall logistics of the process, but not the bizarre and poorly explained results. Take someone from the modern day, plop them 200 years in the past and no one blinks an eye? Ok, there are some mitigating circumstances, what with the traveler looking exactly like someone else and having a historian father with a treasure trove of knowledge in his head and a propensity for lecturing, but I’m still not completely buying it. Things are smoothed over too quickly by Jones, especially with the particular characters she has chosen to unite in this great quest.
There are some great bonding moments between the characters, as each learns to trust the other, and even the emergence of a love story. Honestly, the real power and appeal of the story lies in the characters; nearly every vital plot component in this volume was poorly handled, from the too-easy acquisition of the quest objects, to the rushed discovery of Noreth’s “true” identity, and especially the bizarrely sudden and anti-climactic ending. The basic premise is very good, so good that it deserved a lot more attention than it received from the author. However, that being said, I also chalk the “failures” of this volume up to several non-authorial issues: my age (I am not the target audience, and these were written long before it became acceptable for YA to bridge the kid-adult audience gap), the removal of my rose-tinted reading glasses, and the fact that these were written very early in Diana Wynne Jones’ career.
Still, I love it because I loved it. This series was a significant contributor to my love of reading all those years ago, and if that doesn’t deserve 5 stars, I don’t know what does.