I know, I know – I reviewed a Diana Wynne Jones book a couple of weeks ago. But, to be entirely fair, there’s no such thing as too much Diana Wynne Jones. And this, her last book, was always going to be one for me.
By now, perhaps you know the story behind this book – DWJ became very ill during the writing of it, and died with it partly finished, whereupon her sister Ursula was asked to complete it – but, even if things hadn’t worked out like this, and Diana had had a chance to finish it the way she wanted to, I would have been excited to read it. Sometimes, I feel that DWJ can be a little hit-and-miss for me: I love some of her books with the entirety of my heart, and others leave me a bit cold and confused (I don’t really ‘get’ the Chrestomanci books, for instance, which other readers adore); however, she’s always worth the read, and that’s the beauty of her work.
‘The Islands of Chaldea’ tells the story of Aileen, a young trainee Wise Woman from the island of Skarr. Her aunt Beck is the island’s last remaining Wise Woman, and the book opens with Aileen’s initiation, which she is convinced she failed. She doesn’t have the usual reaction to the ceremony, she has no visions, and she tells herself her magic is weak or non-existent. After her aunt Beck, the magic in her family will be gone – or so Aileen thinks.
Summoned to an unexpected audience with King Kenig, the ruler of Skarr, Beck and Aileen are dumbfounded when they are told they are to mount an expedition to discover the reason behind a giant invisible barrier in the sea between the islands of Skarr, Gallis and Bernica (the Islands of Chaldea), and the larger island of Logra, which has been impossible to reach for over ten years. Nobody understands why, or how, this has happened, and it is up to Beck and Aileen, and their band of unlikely helpers, to figure it out. Not only that, but the prince of Chaldea – Alasdair, the son of the High King Farlane – was taken through a sort of magical wormhole to Logra about a year after the barrier went up, and he hasn’t been seen since. It is believed that the magicians of Logra have devised this unbeatable barrier in order to set about creating weapons, unobserved by anyone from the rest of the archipelago, and fears of an imminent attack are high.
Ivar, the son of King Kenig and Queen Mevenne, is sent along with Beck and Aileen. With them goes Ogo, a young man of Logra who was stranded on Skarr when the barrier went up.
On the way, they stop off at a partially sunk island named Lone, where they come across a strange cat which can appear and disappear at will, and which seems strangely attached to Aileen. He is immediately christened ‘Plug-Ugly’. In the land of Bernica, they meet a monk called Finn who has a parrot named Green Greet, who is far more than he seems. And, in Gallis – the land of Aileen’s father – they meet some of her cousins, one of whom has a pet lizard, who then comes along for the ride.
It seemed clear to me that the islands were supposed to be the British Isles – Skarr being Scotland, Logra England, Bernica Ireland and Gallis Wales – and that gave me a lot of joy as I read (though I could have done without the obligatory ‘leprechaun’ reference as they journey through Bernica.) The animals they collect upon the way are important to the story, of course, but they also have a symbolic resonance. I found the plot to be simple and gentle, with a distinct lack of peril – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, by the way – mainly because it was narrated in a way which made it very clear that Aileen is recalling past events. This removes part of the sense of danger and tension, but also makes the narration ebb and flow, just like the reader is on board the ship beside the characters, bobbing up and down on the ocean waves.
Parts of the book are very funny – particularly the scene where aunt Beck is attempting to air out her clothing to rid it of bad magic, which involves pegging her underwear all over the ship – and, in parts, the dialogue is well-written and well-conceived. At other points, however, Aileen’s dialogue in particular sounds a little clunky and the overall tone is a little toothless. As well as that, at times it appeared that some of the plot points hung on coincidence, or some of the challenges facing the characters were very simply overcome, which took away from my total enjoyment of the book. I admit to finding the ending very ‘smooth’ and neat – so, in other words, very different from DWJ’s normal style which is, sadly, only to be expected – and, for all these reasons, ‘The Islands of Chaldea’ isn’t up there with ‘A Tale of Time City’ or ‘Hexwood’ or ‘Enchanted Glass’ as my favourites of her middle grade books. Because of the fact that it was her last, however, and it was the book that was on her mind as she faced her end, and it was lovingly finished by her sister who (if her Afterword is any indication) had very little to go on when she picked up the reins, I will always cherish it.
So, it’s a definite recommendation from me, if you’re a Diana Wynne Jones fan. If you haven’t read her before, though, I’d recommend ‘Enchanted Glass’ or perhaps even her famous ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ as an introductory book.
And – as ever – if you’ve read any of the books I’ve mentioned in this post, I’d love to hear what you thought!