by Joan Aiken
Published 1992, 1995
At the end of Dido and Pa, we leave everyone (the ones that lived, anyway) seemingly happy. Is, the little girl who had worked as a servant for Dido’s father and his mistress, is invited to live with Dido’s older sister, Penny, who eloped in Black Hearts in Battersea. Apparently, that marriage didn’t work out so well; Penny’s husband has long since absconded, leaving Penny to shift for herself; she lives in the woods and makes toys. Another character from the Dido and Pa, a kind, goodhearted man, also takes up residence, leaving us with the impression that they will be a happy (if immoral) household.
But, of course, happiness can’t last in Aiken’s alternate world, and when Is opens, we find that the kind gentleman has also disappeared (which honestly seems decidedly out of character for him, which rather annoys me. It’s obvious that having him around would make the whole plot of these two books not work, but I would much preferred him to have died instead of sneaking off in the dead of night; I’ve begun to wonder if Aiken hated men, as she seems incapable of writing any who are not sneaks, thieves, philanderers, or just plain evil), and Penny and Is are enjoying a peaceful life on their own. However, their peace is shattered when a stranger stumbles into their home, fatally wounded. Before dying, he tells them that he has been desperately searching for his son, who has disappeared. Penny and Is are surprised to find that this man is actually their uncle. (It was never made clear in Dido in Pa whether or not Is was Twite’s daughter, but in Is, it seems an accepted fact.)
And so, Is heads to London, having promised her uncle that they would do their best to locate their cousin. In London, there is a mystery deeper than the disappearance of one boy – many children are being mysteriously spirited away from London’s streets. Is’s adventure takes her far from home and introduces her to many new family members, friends, and enemies.
Throughout these two stories, Is discovers a sort of thought-speech, wherein she, and other children who are so gifted, are able to communicate without vocalizing. It’s an interesting way to add to the story, but also a bit creepy.
Dido is conspicuously absent from these two books (in Cold Shoulder Road, Is and her cousin make their way home, with a great deal of difficulty), but at times I forgot I wasn’t reading about Dido, because Is basically sounds and acts exactly like her. While these books weren’t quite as dark as Dido and Pa, they are still rather creepily strange. Aiken is unafraid to write about cruel, evil people; she is also unafraid to give those people their just desserts (in detail). Per usual, plenty of perfectly innocent, happy characters get killed off as well – there is really just too much death in these books for me to really get into them. In Cold Shoulder Road, a little girl who has been especially friendly and helpful throughout the story is killed almost as an afterthought. The book ends on page 233; the girl dies on page 228, after the enemies have been defeated and everyone is congratulating themselves:
“They shot that poor girl,” [Penny] told Is bitterly, when she was within speech range.
“Jen Braeburn, she was called. From Seagate. She came to the house in Cold Shoulder Lane to fetch me. Those two coves who followed me were lurking outside and shot her. …”
“Oh, poor Jen, how dreadful. How wicked. Why should she have to die?”
“Why should any?” said Pen.
I wonder the same thing, Penny, exactly the same the same thing.