DWJ ReRead · Fantasy

The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones

imageThe Spellcoats is the third book of the Dalemark Quartet, and before my reread I had thought of it as my favourite of the four. (Now it might be Drowned Ammet, but The Spellcoats come very close!) It’s very different from the first two – which already read like very different stories – in the sense that while Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet are told in the third person, in The Spellcoats we are told the story from the first-person, diary-like narrative of Tanaqui. A girl lead, at last! I love Tanaqui. She’s amazing and flawed in the way that many of DWJ’s characters are, and possesses the talent of (literally) weaving magic. The title derives from the two “spellcoats” being woven by Tanaqui, detailing the adventures and mishaps that she and her siblings got into. If Drowned Ammet is a little darker than Cart and Cwidder, showing the oppressive poverty of Mitt growing up in South Dalemark, then The Spellcoats, set in prehistoric Dalemark, is even grimmer. Tanaqui and her siblings (Gull, Robin, Hern and Duck) were raised in a small village by the river, where their family stand out, and therefore are blamed for everything.

If The Spellcoats is closer to Drowned Ammet in tone, it is also more similar to Cart and Cwidder in the sense that it is also about a group of children in a boat on a journey, having to learn to see each other as people even as they snipe at each other all the time. When their country was invaded by the “heathens” and their father, uncle, and brother Gull were drafted to war that would leave their father dead and Gull shell-shocked, the villagers turn their fear towards the children, who resemble the heathens. They run away on a boat, following the flow of the river, bringing them to a strange island inhabited by a mysterious person called Tanamil, and a group of mages that were holding the River hostage as they capture souls in nets of their own weaving. They also come across an encampment of the heathens, meeting their king, Kars Adon, and get captured by their own unnamed King.

I really liked the depiction of the different cultures here, and seeing how they might have influence the future Dalemark. This is also the first book that really addresses and explains the Undying, the Dalemark gods mentioned in the synopses of the previous books. I know I’ve read this book before and had recollections of the spoilery moments, but somehow I still managed to be surprised by all the things I didn’t notice/remember.

One of the reasons that I had my misgivings about the Dalemark books before is that it’s epic fantasy, which I usually do not prefer. One of my IRL bookish BFFs, Kit, love this series, maybe for the same reason. But in this reading I find the books still using the familiar, organic sort of magic I loved in Diana’s other books – even in a high fantasy, the magic in Dalemark come from ordinary things, such as Moril’s music and Tanaqui’s weaving, and the other children’s “gifts” that seems like so much a part of them that you don’t stop to consider if it’s magical until the text itself say so. It also has that very Diana Wynne Jones message, that no one is completely as they seem, and how we view things and people is coloured by our own internalized opinions and prejudices, and how adults are not always reliable (the King here is a very good example of that!)

The Spellcoats is a mythology book, one that shows us the origins (or at least, as close to it as we can get) and identities of the Undying, highlighting how fact and fiction intersect as we compare the stories in this book and the previous two, where the events in Spellcoats have been turned to myth. While I love that part of it very much, I think my favourite thing about this book is that it’s also about siblings and ordinary magic and of course, Tanaqui. I like that she’s proof that a “strong female character” doesn’t necessarily have to be the sort that goes around kicking butt and taking names, with superhuman strength and martial art skills (okay, I want to laugh writing that in a DWJ review, as I don’t think she ever did that with her characters), that her strengths are of a different sort. I also like that the magic in this book comes from weaving, something that is usually considered feminine, and something that Tanaqui knows she excels at and can do better than the villainous mages with their “crude” weavings. I like that Tanaqui is far from perfect and admits to it, that even though we are reading the story from Tanaqui’s POV she manages to resist putting herself in a better light, eventually revealing bits that she’s left off and being honest about her impatience with her sister Robin when Robin was ill.

So – yeah, I get what Kit have been telling me all this time, that the Dalemark books are freaking awesome and that I needed to revisit them. Drowned Ammet is may now be my current favourite book in the quartet, but Tanaqui is still my favourite Dalemark character.

Other Reviews:

Calmgrove | Charlotte’s Library | Emerald City Book ReviewReaders By Night


DWJ RE-READ no.13 | The Spellcoats (1979)
previous story: “The Fluffy Pink Toadstool”
next story: The Magicians of Caprona

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7 thoughts on “The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones

  1. The Dalework Quartet is a series that, like LOTR and Earthsea, I shall be reading again and again as epitomes of what high fantasy is about. And proof that DWJ doesn’t only do whimsy. And ‘Spellcoats’ comes closest to Le Guin’s anthropological approach to mythology that also makes my heart ache. Thanks for this reminder of ‘The Spellcoats’ power.

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    1. I’ve always preferred Le Guin’s SF to her fantasy, but your review made me want to re-read the Earthsea books again – especially now that I’m appreciating the Dalemark books more than I used to. I may find new things in a Le Guin re-read! (I may also reread LOTR, but somehow that’s still a daunting idea to me right now.)

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      1. Sorry, Dalemark not Dalework — seem to be getting a bit careless in my commenting and posting. What I like about much alternate worlds in SFF is the sense of place, of a credible geography rather than a vague dreamscape, the rationalist in me tempering the fantasist. Dalemark, like Earthsea and Middle Earth and others, fulfil my armchair wanderlust when they successfully marry text with cartography. Le Guin does it with most of her SFF as a glance at her website shows, where there are pages just for her maps!

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