I just finished The Crown of Dalemark, the fourth book in the Dalemark quartet. The first time I tried a Dalemark book, I struggled with it, and felt disappointed. The fantasy of it felt wrong; I was expecting fantasy more in the lines of Chrestomanci or Howl. Of course I gave the books another go-round, and by the time I read The Crown of Dalemark for the first time, I was thoroughly smitten.
Diana Wynne Jones (I always think her full name, like Nick does with Maxwell Hyde) is a tricky one with sequels. At first I hated it; now, I'm come to admire and in most cases enjoy her sequel-making habits. The tricksy part is this: our hero/protagonist of the first book is very rarely the main character of the sequel. In fact, it can take chapters and chapters to find a meaningful connection between the first and second books. Chrestomanci is an exception; a perfect example is Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy. Deep Secret ends in our own world, and is almost entirely narrated by Rupert Venables and Maree Mallory. The Merlin Conspiracy opens in another world entirely - Blest, which feels much like high-fantasy - following an entirely new set of characters, and is narrated by Roddy. We have to go in quite a ways before we encounter Nick, Maree's half-brother; he makes brief mention of Maree and Rupert, then we never hear of them again.
I've come to think of the way she structures her sequels as Related Worlds, rather than true sequels.
But Dalemark is a bit different; the first two books are building toward the fourth; the third is seriously deep history of Dalemark. Reading them in sequence, right after each other, can be a little frustrating; Moril is just setting off at the end of Cart & Cwidder, and then Drowned Ammet starts in an entirely new location with a whole new main character - and never even mentions Moril.
You have to work to get to the payoff, but when you get there, it's huge.
The Crown of Dalemark may be the book by Diana Wynne Jones I've found most personally affecting; I get all kinds of teary at the end, even on multiple re-reads. It's just such a gorgeously-written and emotionally honest book - as well as being structurally honest. Maewen's time-traveling doesn't pull punches; like Margaret Mahy's Maddigan's Fantasia, visitors from the future have to go back to their own time. There's no clever way around it. Thinking about it, I realize my reaction to the end of The Crown of Dalemark is very like my reaction to the end of The Amber Spyglass, a book I have had to stop rereading because of the buckets of tears it produces from me.
On the DWJ2012 tumblr, there has been more than one post quoting Diana on the subject of Howl:
And the procession of people, which was enormous already, has increased--doubled and tripled--of all the people who want to marry Howl. Now it seems to me that Howl would be one of the most dreadful husbands one could possibly imagine.I was amused to read this; I've always had a crush on Howl, and it makes me happy to think of thousands of readers around the world similarly crushing on this fictional wizard from Wales. I've never particularly wanted to marry Howl, though; my fictional crushes are restricted to, well, being fictional. But reading this, and realizing I don't want to marry Howl, made me wonder: If I had to pick a Diana Wynne Jones character to marry, who would it be?
And of course, the answer is: Mitt. He's an incredibly well-crafted character, and interestingly crafted, as well; he has all kinds of useful skills - fishing and sailing and finding directions by stars and eluding pursuers - but they're all hard-earned skills resulting from work. A childhood of labor makes Mitt the resourceful and handy person he is, not some kind of obnoxious inherent talent for everything. He's complicated; he's both emotional and rational; he's kind, even when he's trying to be nasty. He laughs and jokes, in earnest and to cover his real feelings. He has great ideas - big ideas - without even realizing he has them. And, though it's used against him in Drowned Ammet, he actually is a free spirit; Mitt does what Mitt thinks is right. And yes - Old Ammet and Libby Beer are pushing at him, but we're given the sense that Mitt could also walk away. He's given choices by the Undying (who themselves are limited by The One).
A few moments in the book stand out as particularly wonderful, either because of Diana Wynne Jones's genius for saying so much in a few words, or because of Mitt's awesomeness. For example: "Mitt slid his hand carefully down Maewen's arm and took hold of her hand. It was the most momentous and the most exciting thing he had ever done in his life." Up until this point, we get small, almost businesslike, glimpses of Mitt's feelings about Maewen; he refers to it as "calf-love," and tries to shrug it off. It's not a major topic of conversation or exposition. But that line - "it was the most momentous and the most exciting thing he had ever done in his life" - tells us everything. And it somehow perfectly captures that feeling - strongest in adolescence, but not restricted to it by any means - of momentousness that comes with the first expression of love.
Maewen's grief after returning to her own time is also a masterpiece of writing: "Grief thundered down on her, hard and continuous as the waterfall at Dropwater. ... Even with both taps full on, the water did not pour as fiercely as grief poured on Maewen. ... She found she remembered things about Mitt she had not even known she had seen until now."
the water and the grief - it's a gorgeous mixing of the two, and feels even more significant because of the importance water plays in all four books. Water and rivers and the sea and the gods and the Undying and the One - all mixed in with Maewen's grief and loss. It's beautiful, and heartbreaking.
And then there's the message, the huge romantic sentiment, that reveals more of Mitt's feelings for her: "He named a whole palace after me, and I'll never be able to say thank you!"
Because of the time disjuncture, and Maewen's sense of grief at this point, Mitt's naming of the palace doesn't come off as corny or hokey or sentimental. We know he can't have built or named the palace for several years after Maewen returns to her own time; we know he's been thinking about her for years. The act of naming registers as important, as something physically tremendous and important to stand for something emotionally tremendous and important.
Everything Mitt does up until this point is, to me anyway, appealing and charming and crush-worthy, but the naming of the palace reveals an even greater depth of character and a new facet of his personality, and it is this, I think, that makes him my choice for most marriageable Diana Wynne Jones character.