Textile fantasies cont.- The Spellcoats, by Diana Wynne Jones

Just to recap, ever since reading Brightly Woven, by Alexandra Bracken, I've been thinking about fantasies in which textiles play a key role, or are a key aspect of the central character's persona, mainly because I love books in which a hands-on craft (music, metal work, glass-blowing etc) is deeply integrated into the story. So far, as well as Brightly Woven, I've looked at Tom Ass, by Ann Lawrence, and, a while back, I reviewed Silksinger, by Laini Taylor, which has lots of textile-y goodness.

Today's Textile Fantasy, Spellcoats, by Diana Wynne Jones (1979, suitable for older middle grade on up) has got to be the queen of them all. After all, it is the only book I know of that is actually told in weaving! The central character, a girl named Tanaqui, is using a system of woven symbols for words, to "write" in fabric the story she is a part of...resulting in the spellcoats that give the book its title. As the cloth grows on her loom, it becomes imbued with the magic of the great River that flows through story, a river whose power is being attacked by an evil mage. Tanaqui must weave the story of her family's journey down the river--a journey that brought them face to face with living gods, Heathen invaders, and the mage himself-- and use the spellcoats to free the River from his bounds.

Spellcoats was the first book by DWJ that I ever read. I don't know how many times I've reread it in the twenty five years since, but I know that each time I fall in love with it all over again. On my most recent re-reading yesterday, I was struck anew by how much I love the family dynamics of this book--five siblings stuck in a boat in pretty horrendous circumstances, by turns snapping at each other and growing up, as each realizes the part they will play in the coming confrontation and its aftermath. It's pretty superb characterization, and the dialogue often makes me chuckle. As Hern, the middle brother, says at one point (in sarcasm weaving font, if there is such a thing), "Fun and games all the way to the sea" (page 51).

And there is a wonderful Magic at the heart of the story- the "gods" are very real, and not like anything I've ever encountered elsewhere...and postscript is a must read, that, in just a few paragraphs, adds a huge temporal dimension to it all.

But here's the coolest thing about the book-- Tanaqui manages to be a kick-ass heroine without actually kicking anybody--she has to use her brains and her skill at weaving to save the day. How great is that!

This is the third volume that DWJ wrote in the Dalemark Quartet:
  1. The Spellcoats (1979)
  2. Drowned Ammet (1977)
  3. Cart and Cwidder (1975)
  4. Crown of Dalemark (1993)
I didn't realize the other three existed until they were reissued in the late eighties. Spellcoats is a perfectly fine stand-alone, taking place centuries before the other books (and if you are sick of series fiction, you can pretend the other books don't exist). But Spellcoats should most definitely be read before Crown of Dalemark!

Age wise: Spellcoats is, I think, just fine for upper middle-grade on up --there is some military violence, a bit of scary-ness, and some drowned victims of flooding that might distress a younger child.

Here's another look at Spellcoats at Fitful Murmurs.

(The cover I've shown is the most recent (I think). The others are dreadful, so I won't show them).


  1. Charlotte, I have been meaning to comment on your every post. I'll start here, though: I also love textile fantasies, and am adding all of these to my list. When you mentioned that this one is told in weaving, I immediately thought of Helen Frost's The Braid, which isn't a fantasy (I don't think; I can't quite remember) but is told in exquisitely braided verse. Now I'm off to work. More later!

  2. My copy of The Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark is sitting a foot and a half from me, just daring me to pick it up. But I won't. Not until I've finished my thesis.

    (Will I? No, I won't. I think.)

  3. Ah, how wonderful to find you talking about The Spellcoats! I love it so much, an outstanding book.

  4. I hadn't heard of this one. With everyone's rave reviews, I'm going to read it. Thanks.

  5. Maureen, perhaps you could just read Spellcoats? It's much the better and faster read of the two...

    I hope you and Natalie like it even a little bit as much as Katherine and I do!

    And I've never read The Braid, Anamaria--someday....

  6. I'm currently reading the first volume of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci and I'd love to move on to the Dalemark books after finishing this. I want to read all of Diana Wynne Jones books!

  7. I love DWJ books so much. I hadn't thought about the Dalemark books recently, but wow they're amazing.

    In other matters, this is an official invitation to join my "Finding the 'good' parents in YA Lit" challenge and post your own list of books with "good" parents.

    You can find all the information here:


  8. Personally I love Crown because I feel like it ties all the bits together. Also, I know if I start one, I'll just keep reading! :)

  9. Surprisingly, I have not read this book of hers yet. I will now remedy that. Thanks. :)


Free Blog Counter

Button styles