If I didn’t have Christmas carols stuck in my head, I would have been singing Les Mis to myself for half this book. 🙂
The Dalemark Quartet continues, with a book that takes on more directly the issue of oppression in the South Dales. Mitt’s family is driven from their farm to the city of Holand by oppressive rents, and his father gets involved with a revolutionary society called the Free Holanders, which in turn ends up recruiting Mitt and his mother Milda, too. But when the Free Holanders decide to finally do something other than sit around and talk, things start to go very wrong very quickly.
That’s half the story; the other half belongs to Hildy and Ynen, the grandchildren of the Earl of Holand. (70% of the names in this book begin with H. Hildrida and Hadd and Harl and Harchad and Holand and Hobin and hell if I can remember the rest.) As much as it sucks to be a commoner outside the palace, it isn’t all sunshine and roses being a noble inside it, either; you never wonder where your next meal is coming from, but you do get sold off into political marriages and watch as your grandfather hangs Northerners whose only real crime was to be driven into harbor by a storm.
This book is stronger on both of the fronts that I felt were lacking in Cart and Cwidder; the plot has a lot more momentum, and the emotions are much more strongly laid out. Sure, I wanted to kick the Free Holanders in the teeth for being so blind they couldn’t stage a revolution with both hands and a map — and sometimes I wanted to kick Hobin, too, for failing to more effectively point out why joining them was a bad idea — but it’s entirely realistic stupidity, which means it frustrates me, but doesn’t make for a bad story.
Other things I liked, before we LJ-cut for spoilers: Poor Old Ammet and Libby Beer. Which is to say, the tradition of making those two figures and throwing them in the harbor is fabulous. Like the word “cwidder,” it feels very plausibly real, and ends up (as the title suggests) being very relevant to the story. I also liked the largely Ruritanian feel of the story; what with the revolutionaries and all, I half-believe that if you set sail across that ocean, you’ll wash up in Westmark. 🙂
The rest goes behind the cut.
I’ve said before, in other places, that I like it when the good guys find themselves at odds with one another, and have to overcome that in order to work together. It only pleases me, though, if their reasons for being at odds are valid. If it’s all a Big Misunderstanding — Spider-man movies, I am looking at you — then I just want to slap everyone. So it pleased me a great deal when Mitt’s storyline collided with Hildy and Ynen’s, and they didn’t all get along together, for reasons I could totally support on both sides. Yes, Mitt’s life has sucked, and Hildy and Ynen have all kinds of privileges they’ve never really looked at before. Having said that, he’s an ass to them on multiple occasions, and (as Ynen figures out) hasn’t ever really thought through his revolutionary bullshit to see where it doesn’t make sense. What’s extra-awesome — given that this is a series, and I know we’ll be seeing them again — is that they end the book still not quite liking each other. Mitt grumping that deciding he’ll come back as a friend means he’ll actually have to, y’know, act like a friend, and Hildy thinking that it’s hard to trust Mitt when he’s being such a jerk, serve as ballast to the deus ex aspects of the ending, keeping it all from feeling like it’s been wrapped up in a tidy bow.
Speaking of deus ex, it occurs to me that one of the odd things about Dalemark is the near-total absence — so far, anyway — of anything like religion. Al tells them the people of the Holy Isles identify Old Ammet and Libby Beer as gods, which seems silly to the Holanders; do they have no religion themselves then? There isn’t any sign of it that I can recall, here or in Cart and Cwidder. Which then has me wondering whether my off-the-cuff sense is accurate, that Ruritanian fantasy tends to be lacking in religion as a general thing. I’d love thoughts on that from people who are better-versed in the subgenre than I am. If I’m right, then my instinct is that it’s because in fantasy, we assume gods are real, and that sort of de-Ruritanianizes the setting. But I don’t know.
And speaking in turn of Al . . . it’s been long enough since I read this book, and Jones had sold me well enough on “every other guy in Holand is named Alhammitt,” that would you believe I actually didn’t realize that was Mitt’s father? And a right dick he is, too. Dalemark appears to be the Land of Parental Failure: Clennan and Lenina, Al and Milda, Navis sitting around and marinating in his own apathy. Not that good parents are common in Jones’ books to begin with (or for that matter, in children’s/YA lit in general), but for some reason I’m particularly struck by the ones we see here. They aren’t abusive (mostly — Al is, by the end), but in some ways I think that’s why they bug me so much. There seems to be no reason why they couldn’t be better parents. I want to shout at Milda to stop being such an idiot, and to tell Navis that ignoring problems, such as his own daughter, is not going to make those problems go away.
(Milda, btw, is a good example of why I try to keep an author’s body of work in mind when I judge a single case. Her brand of idiocy, and the low opinion Mitt forms of women as a result, would bug me a lot more if I didn’t know Jones had written plenty of other fabulous female characters, not all of them children. As it stands, I’m able to read Milda as being herself — a stupid woman, and perfectly realistic as such — rather than as an example of her gender.)
I think that’s most of my thoughts. Drowned Ammet is nearly half again as long as Cart and Cwidder, but I read it more rapidly, because I found it more compelling. I’m looking forward to The Spellcoats, which I ever-so-vaguely recall might have been my favorite, back in the day.