Return of Dido;Arts;Books

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
LIMBO LODGE. By Joan Aiken. Jonathan Cape. pound;12.99.

In 1962, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase opened Joan Aiken's ongoing alternative history of an England in which the Stuarts had remained on the throne into the 1830s, despite being continually menaced by Hanoverian plotters.

Eight books into the saga, the throne is still under threat, mainly from the nefarious and inexhaustible Twite family and their fellow conspirators, while Aiken has introduced us to such pleasing improbabilities as a long-range super-gun and the Channel Tunnel.

The books add up to a glorious melange of mistaken identities, twins, lost heirs, missing relatives and assassination attempts, chiefly centred on the characters of Simon, cave-dwelling claimant to the Dukedom of Battersea, and Dido Twite, the superbrat. When Dido outgrows her brattishness, along comes Little the Slut to assume her place and her adventures.

But really, Dido is irreplaceable, and Aiken's latest volume, Limbo Lodge, returns to the earlier part of her career, a hitherto unrecorded episode on the Pacific spice island of Aratu, where the ship on which Dido is travelling alters course to intercept Lord Herodsfoot, roving ambassador to King James III, who ranges the globe in search of arcane boardgames. Aratu is home to two races, the indigenous forest-dwelling Dilendi, and the Hispanic, colonialist Angrians.

Eleven pages in and a nasty accident has befallen one of the crew, Dido's friend Dr Talisman turns out to be a woman in disguise and by the end of chapter three, the whole party is on the run in different directions, menaced by deadly pearl snakes, venomous sting-monkeys, landslides, volcanoes and the sinister Manoel Roy, brother of the reclusive king - John King, who comes from Norfolk and is distantly related to the Twites. We might have known.

The whole enterprise proceeds at break-neck speed, encompassing murder and hair-breadth escapes, through jungle - and all to the usual rousing accompaniment of false whiskers being ripped off.

There is no time to miss the Hanoverians and their plots; the fun is as fast and furious as ever, but this time with a harder edge. For all the cheerful implausibilities, many aspects of the set-up look uncomfortably close to our contemporary experience of ethnic in-fighting.

Anyone who has failed to encounter Aiken's masterwork, or missed a volume here or there, can find the eight preceding books in Red Fox paperback at pound;3.99 each.

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