“Theoretically they could have gone to the law and accused the rent collector of extortion. But the rent collector was the Earl’s official, and judges always upheld the Earl’s employees against ordinary people – unless, of course, you gave the judge a big enough bribe. Mitt’s parents had no money for bribes. They needed more than they had to pay the rent collector. They had to sell the bull.
Next quarter they sold the mule. Then some furniture. And by that time they were in a vicious circle: The more things they sold from the farm to pay the rent, the less they had to make money with it pay the next quarter’s rent, and the more things they have to sell.” – Drowned Ammet, Diana Wynne Jones
The whole time I was re-reading Drowned Ammet I had this strange feeling like I’m visiting an aunt I didn’t think I liked very much as a kid, but turned out to be one of the best people I knew. I hardly remembered the story at all, other than a bare-bones sort of summary which could have been from reading synopses and other blogs’ reviews rather than being actual memories from when I first read it. I do remember that I was thrown off, finding that it’s a story of this boy Mitt that I didn’t know at all, rather than Moril and Kialan and Brid and Dagner and all the people from Cart and Cwidder. And it wasn’t just that; it was that Mitt was an entirely different sort of person with an entirely different sort of family/upbringing, and lived in a different sort of Dalemark than I was used to. And it’s perfect, because in this way Diana Wynne Jones had me see the conflict between South and North Dalemark from each perspective, and it’s something that she does so well, and that I love in her books.
Drowned Ammet starts with Mitt wondering how he ends up trying to kill an Earl with a bomb. I wondered, too, not remembering that crucial bit, and reading what follows after, which is a description of his happy early childhood. But as the South gets more and more oppressive, and money becomes scarce, the laughter in his household fades. Mitt grows up in poverty, and ends up bitter not only about the Earl and the soldiers, but also toward the freedom fighters that he blames for his father’s death. This bitterness and not thinking things through has him acting out a role in his mother’s plan for revenge – but of course, it all goes awry and he ends up on the run with two of the Earl’s children, Ynen and Hildy.
I’ve said that I hardly remember Drowned Ammet or the Dalemark Quartet in general. They’re not my favourites among Diana’s work. And yet somehow, reading this, I realise that while I hadn’t remembered much of the story, a lot of the book did end up as something I carried with me through to adulthood, like how I thought of poverty and privilege and how adults or authorities aren’t always looking out for your best interests, and seeing more than one side of a story. And then there’s the too-familiar political situation of Southern Dalemark. In Cart and Cwidder, Moril knew that one could get arrested for singing the wrong songs, but the reality of the situation didn’t really hit him until he saw a hanging in his travels, and his brother was in danger of being hanged. Mitt, on the other hand, lives that reality – he’s told that his father died for his part in the resistance, and despite the fact that he never experiences fear himself, he understands all too well the things that fear did to people, how it makes them turn on each other to save their own backs. And yet even Mitt doesn’t seem to realise the consequence of his act of terrorism until after the fact – which turns out to be an eye-opener as to the kind of person his mother is. The parents in this book, too, start out as the sunny, cheerful sort and would unravel into these unreliable, very flawed characters – something that I’ve seen in Cart and Cwidder, and to a lesser degree, in Power of Three.
The last part of this book is spoilery so I won’t say anything other than it’s my favourite, and makes me wonder how could I forget, because yet again it shows Diana’s very natural way of incorporating magic into her stories. I can’t wait to get to The Spellcoats, which if I remember right would have more of Dalemark’s mythology. Four more stories before I get to it!