Expanding the possibilities of fantasy: Pamela Dean’s The Dubious Hills

The Dubious Hills is one of those books that expands the boundaries of what fantasy can do. Centuries ago some wizards cast a spell on a hilly farming region so that everybody who lived there knows one thing, and is dubious about everything else. There’s a person who knows magic and one who knows schoolteaching and one who knows about plants. So far so good, but they really don’t know anything else. Say you’re the person who knows plants. You go to the person who knows about people to find out what you’re likely to do, and to the person who knows about pain to find out whether you hurt, and the person who knows beauty to find out if your clothes look good. We know a lot of things imperfectly, we have learned them and we remember, but we know what we want and what we feel and what we like. These people know what they know utterly, but they are very fuzzy indeed about everything that’s outside the boundaries of their own province.

The amazing thing is that Dean not only makes the Dubious Hills seem simple and plausible, but that she manages to tell a story set there.

Fourteen year old Arry has been trying to look after her younger brother and sister since her parents disappeared. The thing Arry knows about is pain. She’s starting to figure out that there are all kinds of pain, and she knows about mental as well as physical pain. Her little sister Con is growing out of being able to do magic, as all children do. Arry has to keep house and go to school and look after the children and help everyone with pain issues. Meanwhile, something is killing sheep in the meadow, and the schoolteacher is acting strange.

There are so many very unusual things about The Dubious Hills that the weird knowing and doubting may not be the strangest. It’s a small scale domestic fantasy, all set in the environs of one village. There’s a lot about cooking and keeping house and childcare, which is extremely common in real life but very rare in fantasy. There’s farming — not peasants doing something in the fields while the heroes ride past, but actual hands dirty bean-planting and shepherding. There’s spring cleaning. And while it’s a book about a teenager growing up, it isn’t about repressive parents and rebellion. There are no adventures in this book. Things happen, and there’s a magical problem and a solution to it, but they aren’t the kind of problems and solutions that fantasy generally has.

This was the first Pamela Dean book I read, and I read it because I knew the author in a writing group on usenet and she talked about how difficult it was to write a synopsis of it, and then I saw it and picked it up. This may be one of the oddest ways to come to a book — and I hadn’t read any of her other books at the time. I admired it a lot and was deeply impressed with it, and agreed that it was impossible to synopsise. It led me to seek out her other books, most of which I love. I still find The Dubious Hills a book that’s impressive in all sorts of ways, and while I enjoy coming back to it and reading it I don’t love it as I love the Secret Country books and Tam Lin. Nevertheless I think it may be a more important book than the ones I love more, because it’s doing something fantasy can do, but so rarely actually does. 

Here we have a world, a region of a world, where magic has changed what it means to be human. These people are not like us, and they are. They’re strange people, but they are people. They are in fact great characters. The way they know, and don’t know is weird but not beyond comprehensibility. They are alien and fascinating and yet there they are making honey, looking after the sheep, trying to persuade grumpy little kids to call magic to start the fire and keep the water sweet… it isn’t like anything else, and it is very exactly and precisely itself. You might not like it, but you’d have to admit that it’s stunningly original.

It’s out of print, but Firebird will be reissuing it in paperback in Spring 2013, along with Dean’s new Secret Country novel in hardback.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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