1975’s Cart and Cwidder is the first book in Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet.
Osfameron Tanamoril Clennenson — Moril for short — has spent his life travelling from town to town with his father Clennan, mother Lenina, and siblings Dagner and Brid. The family troupe makes a living as travelling entertainers, messengers, and occasional escort for travellers in strife-torn Dalemark. In the course of their travels, they frequently cross from North Dalemark to South Dalemark and back.
A brutal encounter at a lakeside campsite ends their travels.
Accosted and then attacked by well-born strangers, Clennan is mortally wounded. Clennan lingers long enough to give each family member a personal message, then dies. Without him, what is the family to do?
Become aristocrats! Clennan may have been a humble entertainer, dependent on his charm, skill, and talent to make a living. But his wife Lenina was born to the aristocracy. Clennan tricked her into marriage; duty-bound, she stayed with him for seventeen years and three children. Now that she is a widow, she returns to the man she was to have married, Ganner Sagersson, the Lord of Markind. A generation may have passed since Lenina and Ganner were engaged, but judging by the speed at which they marry, their love for each other has not dimmed a bit.
Lenina has landed on the happy ending square. Her children are not so lucky. They spot one of their father’s killers at Ganner’s castle and decide that flight, rather than challenge, is the most sensible option. The trio flee in the family cart. Perhaps they can again be travelling players?
What Moril does not learn until too late is that his father had a secret life. Clennan was an agent for one side in the Dalemark conflict; he was murdered because he offended the powerful. Now it seems that he left some unfinished business, business to which his adversaries believe his children are privy. The kids are in the crosshairs now. As is the entire kingdom.
Although this is the first book by publication order, it is the third book by internal chronology. Often, that sort of thing leads to bitter disputes over the optimal order in which to read the series. (If your life is too staid and boring, just ask some Narnia fans to agree on optimal Narnia reading order). Not so for the Dalemark books: the consensus is that the preferred reading order is Cart and Cwidder (1975), Drowned Ammet (1977), The Spellcoats (1979), and The Crown of Dalemark (1993).
Clennan combines contradictory qualities, as people often do: he is both a glorious freedom fighter and a manipulative jerk who tricks a woman into marrying him. He is both a loving father and a guy who puts his own children at risk by his subversive activities. Ganner, though a bit player, comes off rather positively. He seems to have pined for his lost Lenina for nearly twenty years; he’s willing to intervene personally to save one of her kids. Good for him.
Since he is the protagonist, it falls to Moril to resolve the crisis driving the plot. What is unusual for a juvenile novel is that while Moril’s actions serve the greater good, his motivation for acting as he does when he does was selfish. He admits as much himself … something that makes me think better of him.
Although the prose style indicates a work aimed at juvenile readers, Jones does not simplify her characters or plot. Clearly she thinks kids and teens will be able to handle nuance. Cart and Cwidder is more morally complex than many juvenile adventures and an excellent place to start reading Jones’ oeuvre, if you have not already done so.