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)
In 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.
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.
The 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.)
In 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.