Top critical review
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Solid, readable, involving, but not spectacular
on June 27, 2001
Cart and Cwidder is the first of Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark books, which run to four volumes. Dalemark is a fairly obvious version of Wales. Indeed, the book reminded me a bit of Lloyd Alexander, though not the Prydain books (set in a version of Wales), but rather the Westmark books, as they share, very roughly, tech level, and an interest in politics.
This book concerns an 11-year old boy named Moril, a musician traveling with his family. They earn their money by stopping at towns and villages and playing songs. They also pass news among the people of Dalemark, and take passengers : they and other musicians are the only people who regularly travel between the northern and southern parts of the land, which are at the point of war. The south in particular is being severely repressed by the Earls (there has been no King for some time). Moril's family consists of their jolly father Clennen, their beautiful, aristocratic mother Lenina, the talented 15-year old songwriter son Dagner, and a 12-year old girl, Brid, in addition to Moril. The title refers to the cart they live and travel in, and to the main musical instruments they use, "cwidders", which seem guitar-like, and one of which may have magical powers.
On the journey in question, they pick up a rather mysterious traveller, Kialan, a boy of roughly Dagner's age. He has a tendency to disappear when they pass through villages. Then, near the castle of Lenina's former fiance, some men show up and murder Clennen. Abruptly, Lenina heads to her ex-fiance's house, as he has long promised to marry her if she is ever free. But the children recognize one of the murderers as a guest at the house, and they decide to head on their own to the North. On their way, they find more trouble, and eventually they learn that war is closer to hand than they thought. Can it be stopped?
It's very readable and involving -- I'm not sure Jones can be other than readable and involving. But it shares with much YA fantasy a certain thinness in the background. Her best work, such as _Fire and Hemlock_, seems much more completely imagined, more complex in characterization, theme, and morality. This book is fun, and not without real tension and interesting characters, but it seems minor compared to my favorites among her work. I will be buying the rest of the Dalemark books, however.