The Wolves Chronicles, Part Two

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake (1981)
Joan Aiken, Dangerous Games (1998)

StolenLakeFor 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.

DangerousGamesA 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


10 thoughts on “The Wolves Chronicles, Part Two

  1. These books sound like so much fun. Based on your description it sounds so very creative.

    There are so many cliched adventure/fantasy stories out there that seem to use cookie cutter plots. Though it is an older series, it is nice to see something so original.


    1. Joan Aiken is a real original, for sure. She uses many elements from the past and from other books, but always comes up with new and surprising combinations.


  2. You very much make me want to read these “wolves” books. I do have a copy of Wolves of Willoughby Chase, bought after I read a list of the best alternative histories at The Guardian. Somehow I’ve never gotten around to it. But it’s so much fun to read a series, and I had no idea how many of these Aiken had written.


    1. The “alternative history” doesn’t really kick in until Black Hearts in Battersea, which is one of my favorites of the whole sequence. But Wolves of WC is a classic and you should definitely read it.


  3. I should dearly love to mount a spirited and detailed defence here of Aiken’s alternate history and geography for Dido’s adventures abroad — for example there really is a Welsh enclave in the Patagonian region of Argentina on which she modelled the S American Britons, and the Aratu episide is also based on research she did of the history and geography of the South Seas — but it looks as I must get on with my own overviews of the whole Twite saga *sigh* … so, look out for these in the near future as I revisit my notes for my blog! I agree, though, that these interludes are a little less satisfying than the episodes set in the UK.


  4. Hello Lory!

    The Stolen Lake was the last of the Wolves books I read: I actually really liked the setting which was so wild and exotic and totally mad. But I found a streak of cruelty there which I didn’t like, and I don’t love it as much as some of the others. I’m curious about the later books, and looking forward to your reviews of them.


    1. I really liked the earlier books that are set in a just slightly altered England, so maybe reading the series in close succession worked against The Stolen Lake for me. A ten-year gap — as with the book’s original publication — might have cleared my brain for a different kind of mayhem.


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