I read the entire Dalemark quartet last year, all within a week or two. It was SO AMAZING I couldn’t actually write a review for it. It’s terrible when you love something so much you can’t even articulate WHY you love it, but I am going to try because it deserves to be written about.
To wit: THIS SERIES HAS RUINED MY LIFE. If I had not already worshiped at the throne of Diana Wynne Jones, Amazing Author, I’d certainly have converted after reading the Dalemark Quartet.
On their own, each book is pretty good. They’ve got great characters, good stories, lots of emotions and adventures and friendships– all the fabulous stuff DWJ always puts in her books. However! Combined, this series is a life-ruiner. IT RUINS LIVES. READ WITH CAUTION (but definitely read it!).
Let’s break it down by book (no spoilers, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the series!):
Cart and Cwidder
Cart and Cwidder is the first in the best-selling Dalemark Quartet of books and tells the story of Moril and his brother and sister who are travelling musicians journeying through Dalemark, until one day they pick up a mysterious passenger. Somehow Moril’s family and the stranger are becoming bound together in terror, flight, and music.
I’ve actually read this book twice, and I definitely liked it more the second time I read it than the first. It’s a pretty typical DWJ high fantasy storyline, something similar to The Dark Lord of Derkholm, for instance, only with music!
DWJ plays with some tropes, like having a dude in distress (as opposed to a damsel) and breaking the [unbreakable happy family] apart. The world building is somewhat light in this book, if I’m remembering correctly, but it gets built up in later books. Dalemark is a kind of fantasy England, with all the typical European fantasy thingies, so it might be just a little bit boring if you’ve overdosed on that lately.
The best part of C&C is actually the characters, not the world. Again, it reminds me of The Dark Lord of Derkholm in that it’s a family of siblings and they each have different personalities. Some of them are quiet and some of them are loud, and they all have layers of complexity that takes a few readings to catch.
The people of Holand are bitterly crushed by the tyrannical rule of Earl Hadd, whose armies of spies, informers, secret police and cruel rent-collectors terrorise the countryside. Mitt, the son of a Free Holander, had grown up with the idea of joining the Freedom Fighters and avenging the wrongs done to his father. But when his part in the plot to assassinate the tyrant Earl goes wildly wrong, he finds himself on the run – and the only place to hide is in the midst of his enemies…
The Dalemark quartet is a series where each book is set in the same big world, but with different characters. Like the Crestomanci series, you can read them in any order and you’ll understand most of it. BUT, I think you’d get the most satisfaction ory if you read the books in order. Each books adds more layers to the ones before (and after) it, and reading them in the right order makes it more fun to watch that happen.
For example! Events in Cart and Cwidder affect things in Drowned Ammet, and vice-versa. As it’s set in South Dalemark, though, it’s an entirely different experience than the first book (and not only because one of the main characters is a ruffian). At first, I missed the characters from Cart and Cwidder. I loved them and I wanted to keep following them on their adventures! Eventually, I grew to love the ones in Drowned Ammet. It took a while, though, because they’re so persnickety and difficult.
There’s a lot to unpack in Drowned Ammet! There’s betrayal, lies, conspiracies, assassination attempts, bildungroman stuff, class issues, family issues, deity issues, religion and myths and magic, stuff with royalty and LOTS of other amazing things.
“The Spellcoats,” the third of the Dalemark books, is a prequel to “Cart” and “Cwidder” and “Drowned Ammet.” Tanaqui and her family have always known they are somewhat different from the other villagers of Shelling. But when the great floods come and they are driven from the village, they begin to see the part they must play in the destiny of the land. As Tanaqui weaves the story of their frightening journey to the sea, and of the terrifying, powerful evil of the mage Kankredin, she realizes the desperate need to understand the meaning of it all. Can she fit the pieces of the puzzle together in time to stop Kankredin’s destructive power?
At first I was not very into Spellcoats because of it’s weirdish narrative style. Sort of like a diary, only it’s on a coat because the protagonist is literally weaving the story into cloth.
Spellcoats mirrors Cart and Cwidder a lot, actually. Both have siblings as the main characters, both have long journeys (all the books have long journeys, actually), both have creative arts at the center (music, weaving) and using that creation as a means of magic, both have betrayal and death.
A huge theme in the series (and basically all of DWJ’s other books) is realizing that first appearances, prejudices, and the way YOU see things isn’t necessarily the whole of it. I like that! It’s good to be aware of how your own prejudices and ideas inform how you view other people. It’s a good lesson to learn.
Crown of Dalemark
Mitt has fled from the South, but finds that North Dalemark is just as full of spies and tyrants. And now he is trapped by an order to kill Noreth – a young girl who has proclaimed herself the heir to the crown of Dalemark. If he doesn’t murder her, he risks the lives of his friends.
So this is the book that ruined every other book for me for about three months after reading it. It ties all the plot threads of the first three books together, characters from all three books show up PLUS new ones, and then it turned everything up to 11. It felt a lot like getting to the end of a roller coaster and then SURPRISE! there’s more to it and it’s amazingly fun.
So you see, you really DO have to read all of them in the right order!
Crown of Dalemark has time travel and more journeying and ADVENTURES and a Joan of Arc kinda character and! And then! THE ENDING. THE ENDING.
Next to the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark quartet is my favorite. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend you do so ASAP!