Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Witch of Clatteringshaws

The Witch of Clatteringshaws
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages: 10+

My first impressions on reading this last book in the "Wolves Chronicles," published more than 40 years after The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the year after its author's death in 2004, were that it was too short; that it was too lightweight; that it resolved things too quickly and too easily; that it had too many earmarks of an unrealized sketch, or an unfinished work, fleshed out or completed by a ghost-writer. By that time, however, I had been in touch with Lizza Aiken, daughter of the late Joan and administrator of the author's website. She admitted that other reviewers had picked up on the same vibes, but in fact the book was all Joan Aiken's work. And the reason the book reads that way is explained in the author's own afterword to the U.K. edition of the book - read it here, in case (like me) you were perplexed by a U.S. edition that omits it. And here is an essay Lizza wrote about how certain authors' final, posthumous works may be considered a parting gift to their fans - as evidenced not only by this book, but also by Terry Pratchett's The Shepherd's Crown. I am thankful to Lizza for directing me to all these resources. The sum-total TLDR of them is that Joan Aiken wanted to bring the story of Dido Twite and Simon Battersea to a satisfying conclusion, and to reveal her final intentions for the unique alternate-history fantasy world in which they dwell - but as she felt the energy to write leaving her, she decided writing a short book was better than starting a long one and not finishing it.

As the canon closes on the strange world of Dido Twite & Co., Simon - lately promoted from Duke of Battersea to King of England, against his will - has begun to wish somebody else would come forward with a believable claim to the throne. Dido, meanwhile, has turned down his proposal of marriage for the simple reason that she doesn't want to be queen. She isn't the only person who doesn't want Dido to be queen; a couple of Simon's counselors have begun to hatch a plot to put forward a pretender to the throne. Joined by her friend Piers, a.k.a. the Woodlouse, who has turned up surprisingly alive and well after being presumed dead in a previous adventure, Dido travels to the lochside village of Clatterinshaws, Scotland to check out a possible heir who has been reported by the local witch, Malise.

Malise is the final masterpiece in Aiken's long career of inventing unforgettable characters. Doing triple duty as a district health inspector, child welfare case worker, and magical practitioner, she consorts with an ancient otter-worm known to local folks as the monster of the loch, battles even ancienter nocturnal nasties known as the Hobyahs, has family connections with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king's jester, and struggles daily with the guilt of having missed the dying words of an important saint whose prophecy was supposed to carry great importance for the kingdom. Also, she rides a golf club instead of a broom.

Between them, Dido and Malise have to protect a downtrodden orphan named Fred from an awful nursing-home matron and her worthless son, who have designs of their own on the British throne. Meanwhile Simon must lead an army equipped for warfare in another century to confront a threat that has landed on the Scottish shore. Though he is anything but a battle-hardened warrior, he must soon face the Wendish king in a goofy sort of single combat.

Though it all ties up faster than one would like, it does so with many fine, Aikenesque touches - such as Malise's remark about a case of athlete's foot turning out to be Achilles heel. Towards the end it has the plotting and pacing of some of the more preposterous operas of Rossini, and perhaps a similar style of music is meant to go with the silly lyrics that its characters sing increasingly often. But all is finally well in a kingdom blessed with an ex-king who has kind hands, a surprise heir, an all-too-knowing parrot, and a prophecy that comes to light with perfect timing. I wish there could have been more - but perhaps it is, as Aiken said, better to know how the author meant it to end than to be left wondering forever.

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