The Spellcoats  - Diana Wynne Jones The Spellcoats is the penultimate installment in Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet and it is very different from its predecessors.

If Cart and Cwidder is our introduction to Dalemark, and Drowned Ammet is a fleshing out of that earlier exposure, then The Spellcoats is the (pre) historical volume that gives these two their significance in the grand scheme of things.

Set 600 years in the past, Spellcoats gives us a glimpse at prehistoric Dalemark, a time before the land was divided by North and South, or into the earldoms that would define Mitt and Moril’s lives hundreds of years later. The story follows a group of orphans who have been outcast by their own people following a devastating war with an invasion force simply known as the Heathen. Unfortunately, this is a time of superstition and the children resemble these invaders and are ostracized and forced to flee down the River during a great flood. The heart of the group, and the narrator of the tale, is the youngest sister Tanaqui (like a few other names in this series, I’m not 100% sure how I’m supposed to pronounce this). She and her brothers Gull, Hern and Duck and her sister Robin flee their riverside home carrying little more than food and three valuable statues that represent the Undying, or what we would most likely call household gods. To save on spoilers, I’ll simply say that old stories reveal great secrets, and Tanaqui and her family discover the truth behind their resemblance to the invaders, shaping the history of Dalemark and the future we have already glimpsed in the adventures of Mitt and Moril.

This volume in the series is notably different from the first two, and not just because of the tremendous leap in time. While some reviewers have asserted that the differences in place and time between the volumes are disconcerting, I find the shifts to be one of the more interesting elements in the setup of the series. There is something intriguing about learning the history and mythology of the world later in the progress of the story, filling in the blanks rather than carrying a load of exposition into it to be fit willy-nilly throughout. Stylistically, Spellcoats is unlike the other volumes as well, being told in first person and with a straightforward, slightly formal sentence structure that is intended to reflect the pre-historical setting. The tale is not “written” but rather woven by Tanaqui into a garment known as a “rugcoat,” an object imbued with magic and tradition, and the story itself is a “translation” of this garment hundreds of years later. As far as artifacts and causal chains are concerned, Jones does a fantastic job constructing a story that spans centuries; the story does not seem overtly tied to the rest of the series until the revelations near the end, but it still feels familiar and important.

The characters are well developed and multi-dimensional, which is difficult in the first person format and with the mythological overtones, and much of the strength of the book can be attributed to this. The book’s strengths lie with the characters and the overall mythological makeup of the world, which does not depend on magical, non-human species (no elves or dwarves, etc) or elaborate belief structures. However, this book shares the common weakness that runs throughout the Quartet: endings, or a lack thereof. This volume ends abruptly, but this feels intentional, as we are supposed to be gleaning the story from an ancient piece of weaving and the purpose of the rugcoat is not to provide conclusions. BUT the events leading up to the ending are similarly abrupt, and this is not so easily explained away or forgiven. Again, as in the preceding books in the series, moments of great import or suspense happen so quickly you may miss them if you blink; the lead-up is generally good, but nine times out of ten the resolution is a disappointment and things are often solved too easily. I know I have definite suspension of disbelief problems with somehow conceiving that two peoples at war with each other could be united by a boy-king with tenuous connections on one side and word-of-mouth on the other . If it weren’t so vital to the overall story I could probably look past it, but as a lynchpin moment in the story arc it doesn’t work so well.

However, despite its issues, I have to say I still love this book. I first read The Dalemark Quartet in my early teens, and it was the first fantasy series I had ever encountered to approach the structure of the story in this way, interconnected but intentionally out of sequence. Frankly, it blew my mind at the time and prompted me to go looking for more, more, MORE complex stories to feed my voracious fantasy appetite. So for that, The Spellcoats keeps its 5-star rating for me.