The DWJ Project: The Spellcoats
Third book in the Dalemark Quartet, which steps way back in history for the founding of the kingdom, when an invading army and an evil mage threaten the land.
A lot of people have cited this as their favorite book of the series, and I can see why. Tanaqui and her siblings are a great DWJ family; they don’t all get along, but they’re deeply loyal to one another, and all contribute in their individual ways. And the worldbuilding for this novel is especially rich: the Undying, the weaving of the rugcoats, the mages binding their spirits with their gowns, and all the rest of it. The setting we see is very plausibly an earlier society than the Dalemark of the “present-day” books (the ones with Moril and Mitt), and yet some of the things that happen along the way aren’t the obvious — because Jones is good at making things more complex than you expect at first glance.
Getting into the details: I’m thinking specifically of the invading “Heathens,” and how Kars Adon, whom you expect to be a real enemy, isn’t really. Nor is the unnamed King; he interferes with Tanaqui and her family, yes, but as they say at one point near the end, he’s just the wrong guy for the times he lives in. Kankredin is flat-out evil — and I do wish we got more backstory there, about who he is and where he came from; the bits we get only whet my appetite for more — but he’s also clearly inhuman; he may have once been human, but the process the mages go through, dying and binding their spirits back into their flesh, leaves them something other than people. (I try to take each book on its own terms here, but as it happens I’ve finished The Crown of Dalemark before writing this post, and the way Kankredin is treated there, as more an abstract force than a person, is very interesting.)
The Undying also interest me. I commented in the post on Drowned Ammet about the lack of religion in present-day Dalemark; the situation here is very different. Each family having their own Undying makes me think of the Lares and Penates in ancient Rome; the region in general has a very early-state feel, with an ostensible King, but very little in the way of centralization or state-sponsored faith. Then we hit the underlayer: the way the One was bound by Cenblith, the Lady as the River and also Tanaqui’s mother, Tanamil’s avoidant behavior on the topic of his own binding. The river as the River of Souls, and the way Kankredin rolls up it from the ocean, is numinous on a fundamental level that only a few of Jones’ books achieve. (The Homeward Bounders comes to mind as one comparable example.)
And then there’s the weaving, which is just cool, even if I can’t figure out how the hell it’s possible to cram the entirety of this novel into two coats, no matter how large. I’ve done some weaving myself; it isn’t of the kind Tanaqui practices, but it gives me enough sense of the process that I scratch my head a bit over the practicalities. Still, I love the mythic resonance it has, and the way weaving = stories = spells.
(Actually, this seems a good time to ask — has anybody out there seen a master’s thesis (I think) posted online, about language and storytelling as magic in DWJ’s novels? I started reading it years ago, then lost the file, and would like to take another look at it.)
I do like the epilogue, with its fictional-academic analysis of the story told in Tanaqui’s spellcoats. Having said that: holy lack of resolution, Batman! The ending is all but a cliffhanger, leaving unanswered the question of how exactly that battle ends (though we can guess, because we’ve read the present-day books, that Kankredin doesn’t win). And given that readers had to wait fourteen years for the finale . . . I think that may be why I always found the Dalemark books weird; I think I picked them up before The Crown of Dalemark came out, and then read that one separately later on. I’m curious as to why the delay happened. There are long gaps in other series of hers, but never with these kinds of dangling threads, waiting to be picked up and tied together at last.
Well, I’ve got <checks watch> about twenty-six hours to make that last post, to finish out this series before the end of the year. Expect that later tonight!