Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake (1981)
Joan Aiken, Dangerous Games (1998)
For my next installment of a series of posts considering Joan Aiken’s “Wolves Chronicles” (for lack of a better name, the series begun with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and mostly featuring Dido Twite as the protagonist), I’m departing slightly from my general intention of reading the series in order of publication. Instead, I’m grouping together the two books that Aiken herself published out of chronological order. After The Cuckoo Tree (1971), which concluded a five-book sequence written within a single decade, Aiken waited another decade before publishing the next book in the series. And rather than picking up the story where she had left off, with Dido’s reunion with her friend Simon in England, she went back to an adventure that happened while Dido was en route from Nantucket to England on the HMS Thrush.
And what an adventure it is! The alternative history of the first few books in the series, with their marauding packs of English wolves and dastardly Hanoverians plotting to overthrow good King James III, appears almost plausible in comparison to Aiken’s radical revisioning of history and legend in The Stolen Lake. In place of South America we have Roman Britain, colonized by an unlikely alliance of Welsh and Roman settlers in the sixth century (and somehow, some Spanish has gotten mixed in there too, as shown by name combinations like Manuel Jones and Davie Gomez). The queen of New Cumbria has summoned Captain Hughes of the Thrush to her aid, and Dido is reluctantly dragged along. There Dido makes some appalling discoveries regarding the strange absence of young girls in the land, and the peculiar preoccupations of the queen, who is awaiting the return of her husband from a very long sleep…
Aiken’s wild imagination is abundantly on display in this book, and there’s definitely not a dull moment. While I enjoyed it overall, I found it somewhat less satisfying than the earlier books. The weirdness of Welsh settlers wearing togas amid Incan ruins is certainly original, but doesn’t quite gel into any meaningful cross-cultural satire, and the return-of-the-king plot ends up somewhat buried in the mishmash of different elements. The exuberant storytelling pulls us along, but at the end we may scratch our heads and think, “What was that?” The highlight, for me, was the series of brief stories told to Dido by the mysteriously appearing and disappearing minstrel Bran. Open-ended, ambiguous, and disconcerting, they raise the narrative above the ranks of mere page-turners.
A full seventeen years later, after writing about Dido’s return to England and some of her further adventures, Aiken decided to go back and chronicle another episode from her sea voyage in Dangerous Games (Limbo Lodge in the UK). Here, we have an even more exotic location in the vaguely Indonesian island of Aratu, where Dido and co. are sent to find an English aristocrat who has been looking for games to help heal ailing King Jamie. I found this the weakest installment so far; besides the far-fetched premise, it has an unfocused story that wanders all over the place amid a cast of unconvincing pidgin-speaking natives with mysterious superpowers. The title seems to promise a kind of gaming showdown, but that never materializes; in spite of the “dangers” of Aratu there’s a strange lack of conflict and character development. This is one episode that even rabid fans of Dido could skip, in my opinion.
After this interlude in foreign climes, I’m definitely ready to go back to England with Dido and Pa. I find that Aiken’s imaginative world works best when it’s founded in her own culture and language, upon which she can ring changes like nobody else.
Read for the RIP X Challenge hosted by The Estella Society