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The Dubious Hills

By Pamela Dean 

8 Jan, 2020

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Pamela Dean’s 1994 The Dubious Hills shares a setting with Dean’s Secret Country trilogy.

The Dubious Hills were the site of an ambitious magical experiment, one whose effects shape the local culture to the current day.

Young children are born wizards, commanding impressive (and quite individual) magic. Once they reach a certain age, they lose their magic and gain their Knowledge, a unique comprehension of specific fields of knowledge. Ignorant of other fields, people are forced to cooperate with each other to function. Fourteen-year-old Arry, for example, knows pain. She is the only person in the community who understands pain, which forces others to consult her to keep track of their well-being. 

As odd as the arrangement is, it functions. The spell has succeeded in its goal of maintaining peace in the region. With one expert per field, there are no disputes. Mutual interdependency is accepted by all. The sole cost is a small sacrifice in the matter of free will.

Their world may be shaped by magic, but the inhabitants of the Dubious Hills still must manage mundane tasks. Plants do not plant and harvest themselves and sheep need to be protected from predators. Wolf attacks on the local herds appear at first to be a typical everyday problem. They are not.

These wolves are not what they appear to be. They are an entirely magical problem. One of the wolves has a grand scheme for the region, one which (if it is successful) will transform the unsuspecting community.


I don’t know which is more unusual: the way knowledge is doled out and the pattern of behavior this forces on the characters, or the fact that the mundane realities of life are acknowledged. How many fantasies bother to worry where the food and clothing come from?

Without intending to saddle the narrative with all the other baggage that comes with the term Campbellian” (John, not Joseph), this novel could serve as an example of one possible response to an editorial request for beings who think as well as humans, but differently. Thanks to those helpful mages of yore, the people of the Dubious Hills are physically incapable of processing information in the regular manner. Despite this profound cognitive difference, they’re still very much people.

It’s quite the trick to pull this off without leaving the reader completely baffled about what’s going on. Dean makes it look effortless. Other authors might have done this by making the grand crisis world-shaking. In this book, the crisis is very personal. Less epic but far more engaging.

The Dubious Hills is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).