The Dubious Hills — Pamela Dean

File this in books that make you go, “Hmmm.” Dean opens with Arry, a 14 year old Physici. She’s got this role within her community because centuries ago, wizards seeking peace decided to parcel out knowledge and knowledge roles. The Gnosi knows, and understands, facts, concrete ideas and methodologies. Only the Akoumi understands about death and what can kill — injuries and the like. Everyone else gets a random bit of magical talent/knowledge — like the ability to know what’s beautiful.

Only Arry, the present Physici, knows about pain. But what is pain? Arry’s been wrestling with the borders of her knowledge province since her parents left her and her siblings alone. Given that this is an incredibly fragile system based around the denizens’ acceptance of the wizards’ spell-born doubt, Arry’s parents’ disappearance and the sudden arrival of stalking werewolves speaking about the knowledge of food, good, and evil rocks the community to its foundation. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away spoilers; suffice it to say that the characterization is brilliant, the villagers are witty, and Arry herself a compelling narrator. It’s rare that an author so aptly capture the voice of a mature child, who’s trying hard to handle a responsibility much bigger than her years. Arry’s struggles, combined with the constant air of doubt created through that long ago magicking, make for a stirring, and beautiful, text. Arry’s meditation on pain and its emotional content make for a startling analysis for what you know that you don’t know you know, a meditation that critiques the roles of society in knowledge formation.


  1. Danica says

    I read part of that! I really loved her Secret Country trilogy that this spun off from (or maybe inspired). This one was a lot more sphinx-like. The trilogy is a lot easier to read because it’s through the eyes of the kids from the normal world who are trying to figure out how the Secret Country works and how they got there; The Dubious Hills strikes me as kind of the graduate school version of those books, because she throws us straight into Arry’s perspective and leaves it to us to figure out how the world works, what all their cultural references mean, what that means about what they are saying and doing, et cetera. It’s a puzzle of a book. I think Pamela Dean was very brave and innovative to write it like that, but I sometimes wished there had been an enormous sticker on the front explaining that I’d have to figure that stuff out for myself, or maybe some little hints somewhere outside of the book, because I even had to figure out that I’d be figuring it all out!

  2. says

    Hi Danica —

    It’s very much a puzzle of a book! It’s fascinating to read because I felt like I was constantly groping towards an understanding of the BASICS of the world, whereas Arry was constantly groping for why her parents left. It was deliciously disorienting.

    I haven’t yet checked out *The Secret Country,* but I’ll definitely look for it!


  3. says

    It’s definitely worth looking up — I hadn’t heard of Dean before this, but I’ve been trying to go through some of the older feminist SF for the summer, and this was a lovely gem of a text… the theory never overwhelms the story, the characters aren’t typecast by gender, and the world itself is very nifty. :)

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