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


Shiny New Books


The fall issue of Shiny New Books came out this week, and as usual there are so many tempting titles to explore…it’s going to keep me busy for some time. In the blowing my own horn department, I had two pieces included:

Suspense with Style: The Novels of Mary Stewart is in the BookBuzz section. I wanted to call attention to the new Chicago Review Press editions of Stewart’s suspense novels, but that wasn’t allowed in the Reprints section (UK editions only in there). I enjoyed pulling together some of my earlier posts about this favorite author and adding a teaser for her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?

My review of Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories celebrates the new UK edition from Virago Children’s Classics. Now readers on both sides of the pond can enjoy these delightfully funny and magical stories.

MadamTalk  SerialGarden


I do hope you’ll check them out, and sample other shiny new delights as well.

Keeping It Short: Armchair BEA Day Three


Confession: I do not generally like novellas or short stories. If a story is worth telling, it seems to me it should go on for as long as possible — or at least for a good couple of hundred pages. I’m usually left unsatisfied by shorter works of fiction, and my favorite books tend to be on the long side. So for today’s Armchair BEA topic, which asks us to celebrate those small-scale narratives, I had to think hard to come up with a list of favorite shorts. But when I got started, I had a hard time stopping! It seems I do like short fiction, as long as there is enough of it.

The Light Princess and The Golden Key – George MacDonald
Two long fantasy stories by MacDonald, one a humorously profound tale about a princess who loses her gravity (in both senses), the other a dreamlike journey full of luminous images.

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Not perhaps the strongest story about consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his indispensable companion, Dr. Watson, but it’s good to start at the beginning and learn how their partnership began, while being introduced to Holmes’s endlessly entertaining inductive methods. You can always skip the weird Mormon interlude in the middle.

E. Nesbit Fairy StoriesE. Nesbit 
This collection edited by Naomi Lewis includes most of Nesbit’s best original fairy tales, which comically mix modern elements into traditional forms.

Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – A.A. Milne
Please, avoid Disneyfied versions at all costs and read the originals aloud, preferably to a child. If you think of them as too twee and precious, you’ll be amazed at the craft of these perfect small narratives that can interest and amuse a five-year-old while slyly commenting on universal human foibles.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder
I posted about the beautiful Heritage Press edition of this brief novel here. Using Wilder’s favored mode of linked short narratives, it brings to life a whole world of distinctive characters, from aristocrats to peasants. Wilder sets his story in 18th century Peru, but his people, while convincingly of their place and time, are also universal in their struggles with the great questions of life, death, love, and fate.

Carry On,
Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
This collection of stories about the hapless Bertie Wooster and his brainiac valet, Jeeves,  contains some of their most hilarious escapades, and sets the stage for further developments in more stories and novels.

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this book captivated me at an early age with its alternately creepy, elegaic, poetic, and stark visions of a brilliantly imagined future in which we conquer Mars, and then it conquers us.

Travel Light – Naomi Mitchison
Daughter of a king but raised by bears, Halla makes her way from the forest to the great city of Byzantium with determination and a bit of magic, encountering dragons, valkyries, and the All-Father himself on the way. If it sounds odd, it is — but also oddly charming. This is a companion of sorts to a much longer book I also love, The Corn King and the Spring Queen.

84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff
A reader’s delight, 20 years of letters between an American who craves real books and the London bookshop that becomes her source. Some interesting details of the before-and-after story of the book and its 1971 publication are found in this article.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
A long-unfulfilled wish of the author’s finally came to fruition after her death with this collection of all the Armitage family stories. Written over the course of more than 50 years, these tales of magic invading ordinary life display Aiken’s distinctive blend of imagination and humor to its best advantage.


Joan Aiken: Storytelling Magic

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)

And though the house had witnessed many strange scenes, wolf hunts and wine drinking and weddings and wars, it is doubtful whether during its whole history any of its inmates had had such adventures as those of Sylvia and Bonnie Green.
Joan Aiken is a true storyteller–a spinner of tales that in another age would keep a crowd spellbound around a dying fire, or make restless children eager for bedtime.  Today, of course, she writes books: over a hundred of them to date.  Whether she is writing a nursery tale for the youngest listeners or a thriller for adults, her books are based on the good, old-fashioned principle of the primacy of plot–and are saved from being mere potboilers by her quirky imagination and sure command of language. Many of her novels are tongue-in-cheek homages to the nineteenth century, that great age of plot-driven narrative, of Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, and Nicholas NicklebyThe Wolves of Willoughby Chase (first published in 1962) plunders all of these and more in its chronicling of the adventures of Sylvia and Bonnie, two children left at the mercy of a wicked governess.

None of the classic ingredients are left out: the wicked governess and her unsavory accomplices, faithful old servants, a resourceful gooseherd, a vast mansion riddled with secret passages, shipwrecks and rescues, ravening wolves, penitential orphanages, near-fatal illnesses, a penniless maiden aunt and a bluff family lawyer.  From the ominous snowbound opening in which men huddle together “for fear of the wolves,” to the closing lines quoted above, there’s never a dull moment.

There’s not a scrap of subtlety, either, but it’s all great fun.  If you missed Aiken as a child yourself, find one to read aloud to, and stop each session on a cliffhanger.  There’s no other time in life when “What happens next?” is such a seriously important question.

This is the first of a long-running children’s series.  Later volumes abandon the adventurous but somewhat bland Sylvia and Bonnie to mainly follow the escapades of Dido Twite, a more idiosyncratic urchin introduced in the second book, Black Hearts in Battersea.  Subsequent volumes play with the idea that an alternate world exists in which Britain’s Hanoverian line of monarchs never came to the throne.  The current monarchy would thus be reduced to the status of Pretenders–how’s that for a fantasy?

Aiken’s works also include dozens of short stories, which have been collected into several volumes including A Necklace of Raindrops, originally published in 1968 and reissued n 2001 with fine new line drawings by Kevin Hawkes. An age range is not indicated, but I would say these eight tales would be most enjoyed by a younger audience.  Again, they beg to be read aloud; often cumulative and repetitive, they invite young listeners to anticipate the next episode.

Aiken obligingly includes refrains suitable for chanting along, such as this extremely silly one from “The Elves in the Shelves”: “Elves in the shelves, mermaids in the bathtub, penguins in the icebox, rabbits in the coal bin, peacocks on the table, and seals in the sink.”  There’s much delight in wordplay and humorous reversals, as in “The Pie in the Sky,” in which an old woman mistakenly rolls some sky into her piecrust and is carried away by the floating pastry.  Taking a ridiculous idea to its extreme sometimes raises unexpected questions, as with “The Three Travelers,” in which an abandoned rail station becomes the departure point for three unlikely adventurers.

Aiken can also write beautifully in a more poetic vein, as with the title story. When the North Wind becomes trapped in a tree, he rewards the man who rescues him with a wonderful necklace for his little daughter, which each year gives her a new magical power, but is coveted by a jealous schoolmate.  Aiken is a master of the modern fairy tale, writing with clear knowledge and command of traditional elements while incorporating a contemporary idiom.  Look for more of her story collections, such as Smoke from Cromwell’s Time or A Harp of Fishbones, to further experience the full range of her fertile imagination.  For anyone who feels the pull of the lure of Story, Joan Aiken has much to offer.