‘I am still not sure how I came to be locked up here, but things are coming clearer. I shall find out in the end.’
I finished reading Diana Wynne Jones’ actual books a while back – I forget exactly when – and since then I’ve been working my way through the other things she wrote, off and on. That’s how I came across The True State of Affairs, the last really substantial work of fiction by her that I hadn’t read, and probably one of her most obscure works. Just to be awkward, it’s currently only available in Minor Arcana, an anthology containing six other shorts collected in either Mixed Magics or Unexpected Magic, both of which I already own, so I put off buying it until I realised it was actually a novella, not a short story, and well over a hundred pages long.
It’s much bleaker than her other work and much more adult (I will probably never get over the weirdness of hearing a Diana Wynne Jones character talk about orgasms). It falls, for the most part, into the high fantasy genre, which is unusual, and is very nearly a prequel to the Dalemark quartet – no-one seems to know whether to count it as a Dalemark story or not. Some of the geography and politics is there, but there’s all sorts of vital pieces of Dalemark missing. And I really do like it. I think it’s probably the best bit of adult fiction she wrote, and definitely her only work that is self-consciously adult to actually hang together (the other being A Sudden Wild Magic, which… no). I like the characters, I like the arc of it and I like the pervading claustrophobia of it. There’s also, unfortunately, three aspects of it I really don’t like.
Firstly, though, the plot. The True State of Affairs is about a young woman named Emily from modern Kent (exactly when she comes from isn’t clear – I initially assumed nineteenth century-ish but there’s references later on that disprove that) who finds herself in what is best termed proto-Dalemark. She is somehow tricked into switching clothes with a woman named Hilda, who turns out to be associated with a rebel party. Emily is captured in her place, and even when her captors realise she is not Hilda they still take her for a rebel spy or messenger and imprison her in a castle.
From there on, there are two interconnected plots: one in which Emily tries to ascertain the state of affairs in the country she has found herself trapped in so as to come up with a convincing lie as to her origins (presumably the truth would not go down well), and one in which she encounters and is romanced by the other prisoner in the castle, Asgrim. Asgrim is, as it happens, the leader of the rebels, who is being held until the remaining rebels have been ‘mopped up’. Early on, she manages to convice her jailer, Edwin, to give her paper and ink, and begins writing out an account of her confinement.
There’s politics, lots of politics, filtered through multiple unreliable narrators – Emily herself, who is naturally confused and takes a long time to really get her bearings, Edwin, who suffers from a combination of ignorance and a sort of naivete, and Wolfram, Edwin’s superior and half-brother of the leader of their faction. There’s also a lot of cultural confusion, as despite the many familiar aspects proto-Dalemark is profoundly alien to Emily, and her innocent mistakes lead her to seriously misunderstand her relationship with Asgrim.
Then there’s the aforementioned three problems. The first is the ending, which I won’t go into detail about, but it is rushed. This is a problem that a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ books tend to share, and it’s not the worst offender – not even closer – but it’s still irksome when the rest of the novella had been so slow-paced.
The second is the irritatingly unanswered question throughout: how exactly did Emily end up in proto-Dalemark in the first place? This is never explained. We’re never given any reason to think that her England is not the real England, and yet she seems remarkably unsurprised to find herself in another world. She never makes any attempt to describe the process that brought her to Dalemark, nor does she ever seem to consider going home as a serious aim. This really should be pure ‘stranger in a strange land’ plot device, which would usually drive me up the wall, but I think the realism with which Emily gets to grips with her situation saves it… just about.
The third, and my biggest problem with the novella, is more subjective and also far more complicated. This is one of only two of Diana Wynne Jones’ works (that I know of – I’ve seen another reviewer refer to Hexwood as a third but I re-read that lately and didn’t pick up on anything) to deal with homosexuality, and the only one to include more than passing references. Wolfram, Emily’s captor and initially the primary antagonist, is gay, explicitly described as such, and his struggles with his own sexuality in a culture that Emily surmises to be deeply homophobic proves to be a major humanising factor for him. Wolfram is the most fully developed character in the work short of Emily herself, and the most interesting outright. He appears initially as a slimy jailer and obvious villain; by the end Emily is forced to acknowledge him as a friend.
The problem lies partly in how Wolfram expresses his sexuality and partly in who he is attracted to. Wolfram’s overall sliminess I could put up with – it’s pretty clear from Emily’s narration that he is a gay map who happens to express his sexuality in a creepy way rather than some kind of archetypical gay man – were he not the only major gay character in all of Diana Wynne Jones’ published works. In isolation, I can definitely put up with it.
By far the biggest issue is then the character who Wolfram is attracted to. Emily’s initial suspicion regarding his sexuality is confirmed when he develops a clear attraction to Kjarten, Asgrim’s fourteen-year-old son who comes to visit his father. Unlike his general sliminess, the way this is presented reads to me as if attraction to teenage boys is perfectly normal for gay men, which is… an uncomfortable message, to say the least.
The whole affair is treated with a remarkable degree of dignity, and to give credit where credit is due, Wolfram clearly has no intention of doing anything more than holding Kjarten’s hand without clear permission, despite the fact that Kjarten is a prisoner and probably could be forced if Wolfram so wished. The conclusion Emily eventually comes to is that as much as she disapproves of Wolfram’s attraction and how he expresses it, his feelings are genuinely heartfelt and she can’t but sympathise when Kjarten makes a point of most definitely not letting Wolfram down gently. But despite all the careful treatment, it’s an uncomfortable read.
Overall, though, the realism and level of detail of The True State of Affairs is fantastic. It feels like a small piece of a much larger story – Asgrim’s story – which according to the introduction of the anthology is exactly what it was intended to be. For the first time I think it’s a pity Diana Wynne Jones wrote so little adult fiction, because I would love to be able to read more like this.