The Wolves Chronicles, Part Three

Joan Aiken, Dido and Pa (1986)
Joan Aiken, Is Underground (1992)
Joan Aiken, Cold Shoulder Road (1995)
Joan Aiken, Midwinter Nightingale (2003)
Joan Aiken, The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2005)

This is the final entry in a three part-series covering the twelve books in Joan Aiken’s “Wolves Chronicles” series. Click on the links to visit Part One and Part Two.

DidoPaIn Dido and Pa, we finally return to the setting and characters of Black Hearts in Battersea, the book that to me defines the tone and spirit of the series as a whole. Though we’ve ranged around the world since then, it feels like coming home to meet Simon and Sophie once more, along with a colorful cast drawn from London low life and high society, all embroiled in yet another ridiculous Hanoverian plot.

Along with the usual zany escapades, there is much that is dark and sad in this book, which as the title suggests is largely concerned with the final reckoning between Dido and her rascally father. Aiken’s villains are always deliciously blackhearted, and given to co-opting child characters for their own ends. But when the protagonist’s father sees his own children as nothing but pawns to be played and discarded at will, it takes the villainy a notch further and brings it closer to reality, sometimes uncomfortably so.

There was a missed opportunity, I felt, to delve further into Pa Twite’s character. Dido briefly questions how he can have such an extraordinary gift for music yet enact such evil; and also wonders whether his behavior has its origins in such a neglected upbringing as she has had. Weighty issues for a children’s adventure novel, perhaps, but upon rereading it in adulthood these were exactly the questions I wished had been explored further. Alas, they are only mentioned in passing, and Pa’s career is brought to an abrupt and vengeful close that cuts off any hope of redemption or even of understanding. With a more complex and balanced ending, a good book could have been made truly extraordinary.

IsUnderground  ColdShoulder

The next two entries in the series leave Dido and Simon behind once more to focus on a newly introduced character named Is, another neglected urchin who takes on a role similar to the one her sister Dido has grown out of. (Though in Dido and Pa it was only faintly implied that Is might be Dido’s half-sister, in Is Underground this fact is taken for granted. This is not the only inconsistency in the series, and to avoid frustration one must read them with a large dose of forgiveness for factual slips.)

The pattern of the stories is well established by now, with quests to rescue missing children (and parents), megalomaniac villains, and situations of doubt and danger, and by this point I don’t feel the need to go into great detail. The fertility of Aiken’s tartly ironic imagination is fully evident in her creation of the despoiled city of Blastburn, a marvelously eccentric assortment of Twite relatives, and the oppressive Silent Sect, and I found much to enjoy in these. But I was severely disappointed by the introduction of an unsupported plot device (self-willed mental telepathy) that robbed the narrative of much of its tension and drive. Convenient for getting characters out of scrapes, yes; convincing, no.

One feature that I did appreciate was how different aspects of language and folklore were put into play in each book. In Dido and Pa there are the singing games played by homeless children, which form an ironic counterpoint to the action; in Is Underground, it’s the riddles for which great-grandfather Twite has a passion (and which play a key role in the plot). In Cold Shoulder Road, Is’s cousin Arun displays a turn for song-making that may bring back Pa Twite’s gift of music in a new and more truly healing way. Aiken’s riffs on traditional wordplay and storytelling are always a delight, as she is able to honor the old forms while bringing them new life through her own idiosyncratic voice.

MidwinterNightThe two final books in the sequence, Midwinter Nightingale and The Witch of Clatteringshaws, were written at the very end of Aiken’s long and productive career. These continue to demonstrate her limitless store of ideas, but tend to fall short in creating a satisfying plot structure. Here the story returns once more to Simon, a reluctant King-in-waiting, and Dido, who finds her way in and out of many more sticky situations while trying to help him. There are marvelous isolated moments and characters — a werewolf confined in the Tower of London, a social-worker witch who lives in an abandoned coach park – but also too many random twists, sudden deaths, and cut-off plot threads. (Even though Sylvia and Bonnie from the first book finally get a mention, if not an actual appearance in person – something I’ve been waiting for all along.)

WitchClatteringshawsIn spite of this disappointing lack of artistic closure, Joan Aiken’s ability to make readers wonder, imagine, smile and shiver has made the wild journey through twelve books — written over more than forty years — all worthwhile. The first five books remain my favorite, but whatever volumes of the Wolves chronicles you choose to sample, you’ll find an extraordinary imagination at work.


14 thoughts on “The Wolves Chronicles, Part Three

  1. A fantastic overview of these last novels, Lory, picking out links and cul-de-sacs, strengths and weaknesses, principal protagonists and passing personages. I’m so looking to my 2016 reread of the whole sequence, and this reminds me that I have a couple more posts about general Wolves matters before I begin the reviews proper. I absolutely endorse your comment that one can forgive the few inconsistencies because of Joan’s overarching and at times overwhelming vision. Really enjoyed this, thanks.


  2. My children and I are reading through the Wolves Chronicles (currently up to Cold Shoulder Road) and my daughter will be tickled pink at the mention of Bonnie and Sylvia! She mentions them at the start of each book – “Maybe Bonnie and Sylvia will show up in this one!” Can’t wait to come across their names as we read.


  3. This series sounds so interesting. Based on your commentary it sounds very different and creative.

    With that, some of the flaws that you point out makes the conclusion sound a little flat.

    Great reviews as well as insightful suggestions as to how the ending could have been better.


  4. I’ve just read Dido and Pa for the first time, and I think your analysis is spot on! For me, Joan Aiken’s great talents are her wild imagination which seems just endlessly fertile and her sense of humour, and yes, the imagination sometimes veers out of control. For that reason, I think her short stories are perhaps better artistically because the form forces her into tighter control. But as you say, the journey’s worth it and sometimes the inventiveness is so staggering!

    I was ALWAYS waiting for Bonnie and Sylvia to come back! I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. And have you read Midnight is a Place? Also set in Blastburn, although not part of the series, and written I think in the 1960s or early 1970s.


    1. Midnight Is a Place is actually my favorite of all of these historical semi-fantasies. It was published during the ten-year gap between the first five Wolves chronicles and The Stolen Lake, and it builds on what I consider the strengths of those first books. I’m waiting for the right time to give it a reread and review — midwinter would seem appropriate. Thanks for the suggestion!


  5. I loved the early books in this series, but never read any further than The Cuckoo Tree (and I think I missed one in that sequence as well.) One of these days, I’ll go back and re-read the whole series, and when I do, I plan to hunt up your posts and read them along with the books.


    1. In my opinion, the ones up to The Cuckoo Tree are the best, although the later books have their moments. You might have missed The Whispering Mountain; some count it as a “prequel” but I think it belongs where it was written, after Nightbirds on Nantucket and before The Cuckoo Tree, because it introduces characters who become important in the latter.


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