Duncton Tales is the first book in the trilogy entitled The Book of Silence (and is followed by Duncton Rising and Duncton Stone). It is a continuation of the mole kingdom first explored in the Duncton Chronicles (Duncton Wood, Duncton Quest and Duncton Found) but newcomers to Horwood's cherished series about moles will find no difficulty in keeping up, since the events of the first three books are merely referenced in passing.
In fact, time has moved on by about a century since the time of Duncton Found. In this book we follow the mole Privet, who, we find out in the course of the book, is the grand daughter of Wort, a character despised by many from the Duncton Chronicles. In this novel Privet seeks to hide from her past in the sanctuary of the library at Duncton Wood.
She is taken in and accepted by moles, especially when she comes by circumstances strange to adopt the mole Whillan - whose birth and parentage are one of the mysteries still to be explored by the time we reach the last page.
Unfortunately for Privet, she lives in momentous times. The sectarians known as the Newborn, who think they are the true believers of the Stone, are spreading across moledom and seeking to censor the libraries that they find. They are intimidating moles who believe of the Stone, and punishing them with sick religious rites known as 'massing'.
Woven into this story is the tale of when Privet was a younger mole, before her journey to Duncton Wood, and her love of Rooster, known to be Master of the Delve.
The measure of how exciting a book is to me is how long it takes me to read - I have whipped through 600 page books in a day or so when moved by the writing. This tome took me ten days to wade through. I won't say that it was entirely dull, but the moments where the pace picked up from dogged and plodding were few and far between.
I did like the fact that the Book of Tales mentioned by several moles in the book was actually reflected in Horwood's writing - we are reading a story within a story within a story here, and the flitting back and forth between past and present (and middle, I guess) keeps the pace up a little.
The passages dealing with Privet and Rooster's love were by far the most intriguing (although I do wish he had a less ridiculous name than Rooster - we find out about halfway through the book that his name was given thanks to roosting crows, but by then I associated it with the more usual meaning of male chicken, which jarred a great deal!) We also meet some truly beloved and vivid characters during this period - including the five moles of the Delve and Rooster's friends Humlock and Glee. They are sensitively written and provide a dose of emotion to proceedings.
This book suffers a great deal from being the first in a trilogy and trying to lay out events for the main story to pick up in the middle and last novel. There is a lot of scene setting, and nothing much happens (although I have a nasty fear, based on my reading of the first Duncton trilogy, that nothing much will happen in books two and three as well!)
I disliked the pretentious tone Horwood took when it came to the Delving that Rooster was involved in (notice the capital letter to that word!) After all, we're just dealing with moles digging tunnels and it is very hard to attribute meaning and wonder to it - although Horwood asks us to.
And once again we have heavy and overt religious overtones, which, frankly, do nothing to aid my enjoyment of the story. I know conflict is required to create a decent novel, but I could do without the preaching and the holier-than-thou attitude ascribed to believers of the Stone. And all the nonsense about seeking the Silence! Boring, I call it!
So, I remain plodding my way through the Duncton series, wending my weary way to the no-doubt disappointing climax but with another 1,200 pages or so before I get there. These books are emblazoned with the bold words: "More readable and rewarding than The Lord of the Rings" - all I will say is "Don't be fooled, people!"