by Diana Wynne Jones
The third book in the Dalemark Quartet
takes us back to the prehistory of Dalemark, when narratives (and spells) were woven, not written. The weaver telling this tale is a girl named Tanaqui, who lives on the banks of a great river with her father, her older sister Robin, older brothers Gull and Hern, and her younger brother Mallard (usually called by his baby-name, Duck). The children are all dark-skinned and fair-haired, the very opposite of everyone else they know, and instead of worshiping the River like their neighbors, they believe in the Undying-- of which three are in their home, in the form of stone or wooden effigies.
Now it comes about that a race of Heathens-- dark-skinned and light-haired, like the children-- are invading the land, and in the wars that follow, the children's father is killed and their oldest brother, Gull, comes back not quite right in the head. The Heathens have defeated them with the aid of powerful mages, and the river is acting funny, and disease is going around, and the villagers are blaming the children-- whom they believe are in league with the Heathens, or else just plain bad luck. Finally, when a great flood comes down the river, the children escape in a boat just ahead of an angry mob seeking to kill them.
But their greatest dangers and adventures lie ahead, as Kankredin, the "mage of mages," is collecting souls looking for ones that can give him a direct line to the Undying-- and thus, have the whole country under his evil power. And to begin with, he has a hold on Gull and is trying to steal his soul. The children flee frantically through a dangerous landscape, where their own people see them and think they are the enemy, and they themselves fear and hate the invading Heathens.
But they encounter a mysterious being named Tanamil... they get help from the Undying, who are (in an intriguing way) man-made idols, forces of nature, and people all at the same time... and they confront Kankredin and escape from his clutches... and the children learn about who their parents really are, and discover gifts they did not know they had... and they realize what must be done to stop Kankredin from destroying their whole world and enslaving everybody for all eternity.
It won't be easy, though. It means two enemy nations must unite against a common enemy. It means a great power, long bound and dormant, must be set free. And it means Tanaqui must come to terms with the magical power she weaves into the fabric of her own story-- into the spellcoats.
This is a brilliantly imagined, exciting and powerful story, and a testimony to the multi-dimensioned detail of the world Ms. Jones has created. The Dalemark Quartet's themes of young people searching within themselves to understand their own amazing powers, and of the ancient Undying doing their part to help in the form of legends, charms, and household gods that come to life, is as fascinating as the deep sense of history, geography, and folklore that fill that fascinating, imaginary country.
The Spellcoats has the intimacy of a family drama, the sweeping power of an ancient epic, the gritty realism of an ancient tale of war, and the colorful vistas of a travel story up and down a great river, and a really cool depiction of mythic/fairy-tale magic. It builds and builds to a climax that is delayed until so close to the end, with such a minimum of "what comes afterward," that I doubt any book could equal it without leaving the ending unresolved. And all of it, apparently, fits in the weave of two intricately-worked spellcoats. Come on, wrap yourself up in it!
Recommended Age: 12+
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