Joan Aiken,
The Stolen Lake
(1981; Houghton, 2000)

In The Stolen Lake, a prequel to The Cuckoo Tree, Joan Aiken recounts one of Dido Twite's adventures before her return to England.

Dido is more than a little intimidated by Captain Owen Hughes, newly assigned to the Thrush, the British man-o-war taking her home. She does her best to stay out of his way, preferring instead the company of the captain's steward, the thoughtful and eclectically educated Mr. Holystone.

The ship is diverted to New Cumbria in Roman America (South America) where, in this alternate history, the British who fled the Saxon invasion settled and flourished. They are summoned to the aid of Queen Ginevra, ruler of New Cumbria. In his orders, Captain Hughes is instructed to bring Dido to the court with him, since the queen has evinced a fondness for girls of about Dido's age.

Dido is not happy at all. First of all, she wants to go home to England. Second, she doesn't care for Captain Hughes' plan to rig her out in female frills and frippery. Third, she thinks there's something wrong about the place from the minute she sets foot on shore, not the least of which is the notable absence of girl children. That her instincts prove to be right is cold comfort, especially since Captain Hughes will not be dissuaded. He and Dido set out, accompanied by some of the crew and Mr. Holystone, who falls inexplicably ill along the way.

Once they get to Bath, the royal city, Queen Ginevra, a strange, pale and bloated woman, reveals that she has summoned them to retrieve her lake, stolen by the clever neighboring king of Lyonesse. Dido thinks there's more to it than the queen is letting on, and she's right again.

The story is grimmer than other entries in the Wolves Chronicles, and it has more of a gothic air. The cultural mix of Welsh, British and Hispanic influences set against the tropical jungles and the volcanic hills marks a startling and intriguing contrast. Dido is in fine form in this venture, and Captain Hughes, although starchier than he is in The Cuckoo Tree, is a nifty reminder of his father, the crusty museum curator in The Whispering Mountain. Queen Ginevra is at once pathetic and monstrous, but Aiken never lets the reader feel sorry for her for very long.

Brush up on your knowledge of Arthurian legends to get the most out this dark and delicious entry in Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles, although in-depth knowledge is not required.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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