After her light-hearted adventures on the island of Nantucket in the previous installment in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Saga, Dido Twite comes up against darker enemies once she reaches English soil once more. At the end of the last book, Dido left Nantucket with Captain Hughes, who since then has become rather ill. When the carriage they’re riding in overtips thanks to a dodgy cabby-driver, Dido goes for help and soon finds herself in the company of more weird and wonderful acquaintances — so many in fact, that they add up to more than all of the previous books put together!
Finding shelter for Captain Hughes thanks to the Tegleaze Manor House and its inhabitants (the spoilt young heir Tobis, the matriarchal and domineering Lady Tegleaze and the strange, creepy Tante Sannie) Dido soon suspects the makings of another Hanoverian plot to usurp the British throne and wreck King Richard the Fourth’s coronation. But many factions are at work within the plot: the illusive Mr Mystery and his bizarre, life-like puppets, the witch Mrs Lubagge whose dislike for Dido could prove dangerous, Tante Sannie and her Joobie nuts, and even her own father — the self-important Mr Twite, last seen in Black Hearts in Battersea!
But Dido is not entirely alone; there is the blind, but kindly Tom Firkin, the terrified Cris and his mysterious “Aswell”, Yan and his band of smuggling “Gentlemen” and of course Lord Sope and his bun-loving elephant Rachel. But into these friends and allies Aiken still places a sense of displacement for young Dido, a feeling of being a cuckoo in a nest that does not belong to her, though at the conclusion of the story one gets the hope that this will not always be so, as a past friend comes in search of her…
In many ways The Cuckoo Tree is quite different from the previous books in the series, despite the traditional story of the Hanoverian plot and its increasingly dubious means of putting Prince George on the throne (if you thought the giant gun was extreme, wait till you’ve seen what they’ve cooked up here!) But the cast of characters in The Cuckoo Tree is much more vast than usual, to the point where it got difficult to keep track of them all, and certain parts were a little darker than usual, with the use of witchcraft and attempted murder. Furthermore, some ideas, such as Aswell, Tante’s eventual fate, and Dido’s increasing loneliness are more suited to an older audience than the light-heartedness of the former books. But for me anyway, these deeper levels only make the books more fascinating, and I hope the trend continues in further books in the series.