Fantastic to the last word

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
The penultimate book in the author's best-known series has been published since her death in January. Jan Mark looks elsewhere for her memorial

Midwinter Nightingale By Joan Aiken Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

In 1962 Joan Aiken raised the curtain on a hitherto-obscure period of history with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Set nominally in the 1830s, it, and the sequels of which Midwinter Nightingale is the latest (with The Witch of Clatteringshaws awaiting publication next year), portray an England in which the Hanoverian succession has never taken place. James III is on the throne and the land is rife with plots to overthrow him and install the Pretender, Prince George, in his stead.

As it turns out, the main characters in the first book never reappear, with the exception of Simon the gooseherd, lost heir to the Duke of Battersea.

Instead the focus shifts to Dido Twite, a mouthy hellion who takes over and rampages unstoppably through the subsequent novels. For a while her place is taken by her younger sister, Is, who is only Dido continued by other means, but in Limbo Lodge Dido herself is back with a vengeance and she, with Simon, is at the heart of Midwinter Nightingale in which Simon discovers he is destined for a higher station even than the Dukedom of Battersea, but false claimants stand in his way.

Aiken has always played merry hell with time and space, events transpire with breakneck speed, improbability piled upon impossibility, but with such energy and panache that the reader is swept along on the narrative current.

To the last, energy and invention show no sign of flagging, but there is a certain perfunctoriness to Midwinter Nightingale, particularly in Aiken's cavalier dispatch of some (indeed most) of the characters. Abednego Twite, eaten by wolves in Dido and Pa, has at least been around long enough to be missed - for his musical talent if not much else.

Lord Herodsfoot, who featured prominently in Limbo Lodge, is introduced and finished off in a sentence or two. An entire family (of hereditary werewolves) is rubbed out in the course of a couple of chapters.

People are abducted, crushed, eaten by tiger pike, and all with the insouciance of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Readers coming to the saga for the first time via this book may be slightly disoriented. But the rest of Aiken's prodigious output - the Felix trilogy, fiction for younger readers such as Tale of a One-Way Street, the horror and detective novels for adults and, above all, the short stories - is as much her memorial.

In 1953, she published All You've Ever Wanted, introducing the incident-prone Armitage family and a world in which weather and sorcery are controlled by civil servants and local shopkeepers, and magic is no more of a hazard than loose chippings or dry rot.

No one is ever surprised by anything: unicorns on the lawn, an infestation of witches on the railway, the devil materialising in a laboratory; on planet Aiken everything is perfectly normal as long as you keep a level head.

The title story of that first collection is about a girl whose aunt sends her birthday rhymes of crashing banality - "May your way be strewn with flowers" "May you have all you've ever wantedAnd every future wish be granted" - that came true literally.

For half a century, anyone who wanted a new Joan Aiken story had only to wish and another would be along shortly. I grew up with her books and watched successive generations adore them. Impossible to believe there will be no more.

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