Since Diana Wynne Jones’ death from cancer in 2011, fans of her books (of whom I count myself) have had to satisfy themselves with a fair number of novels and a couple of collections of short stories, primarily written for children. The Islands of Chaldea was completed by her sister, Ursula Jones, after Diana’s death, and was published at the start of March this year. Of course, there was no way that I was going to miss out on this, so I pre-ordered an e-book version and read the whole thing on the day it downloaded.
Twelve year old Aileen is a trainee wise woman, living with her Aunt Beck, who is the strongest and best wise woman (or witch) on the island of Skarr, northernmost of the islands of Chaldea. Aileen starts the book miserably convinced that she will never become powerful like her aunt, since she was meant to have a vision, but has seen nothing, in her recent initiation. Abruptly, however, the two are summoned to the castle of the local king, Kenig (who is a relation), and dispatched on a quest. Ten years previously, the largest and easternmost island, Logra, was separated from the other three islands by a sort of magical barrier. The high king of Chaldea, Farlane, whose son, Alasdair, is a hostage in Logra, reports that the spell can be breached and Prince Alasdair rescued if “a Wise Woman journeys from Skarr, through Bernica and Gallis, and enters Logra with a man from each island.”
Forced into this by the High King, King Kenig and Queen Mevenne, Beck reluctantly takes Aileen, Kenig’s younger son Ivar (who’s seventeen), and Ogo, who’s a Logran, left behind at the age of five in Skarr when the barrier went up. However, it’s not long before things start to go wrong: the money they’d been given for their travels turns out to be mostly stones, the clothes packed for them are full of the wrong sort of herbs, and the men hired to take them to Bernica make it obvious that they’ve been paid to make sure that they don’t reach their destination. In Bernica, after being assisted by a monk called Finn, and a couple of the many rulers, Aunt Beck is almost turned into a donkey, and they reach Gallis eventually where Aileen meets her cousins for the first time.
So, what did I think?
Well, The Islands of Chaldea is mostly very good, particularly in the early parts: Aileen’s narration is nicely done, and the world-building is sufficiently detailed not to overwhelm the plot. Skarr is rather like Scotland, Bernica like Ireland, Gallis like a cross between Wales and France, and Logra like England, and the customs and landscape of the four islands are well-distinguished. The rivalry between Donal, Kenig’s elder son, and Ivar is convincing, and Aileen’s distrust of Donal is borne out by later events. As well as magic-workers, there are also priests and monks and nuns of an unnamed religion, who have various roles in each of the islands – particularly in Gallis – and there is a lovely bit when Beck, Aileen, Ivar and Ogo are starting off on their journey, accompanying the priest of Kilcannon to his fane, when his unexpected arrival catches the novices out in roistering.
It’s about when they’re leaving Bernica that things start to go a bit wrong: the narrative starts rushing, and the author seems to have lost a grip on the characters and how long they’ve been travelling. There are still some good bits, but the climax, although nicely done, is awfully reminiscent of Drowned Ammet and The Crown of Dalemark, and the ending itself is just far too neat. Endings in Diana Wynne Jones novels are usually bittersweet or open-ended, full of potential – just consider Kathleen and Sirius’s parting at the end of Dogsbody, or the entirely new world created in Witch Week – so to have this one tie up all the endings so neatly felt wrong. I also felt rather cheated with the revelation of Ogo’s identity, because it seemed like a cop-out.
I think, given that, as Ursula Jones notes in her Afterword, Diana “left no notes: she never made any. Her books always came straight out of her extraordinary mind onto the page, and she never discussed her work while it was in progress. There was not so much as a hint of what she was up to…” it’s a pretty good completion. The characterisation does change, and I’m not altogether sure I like Aileen at the end compared to how she is at the beginning, nor how Ivar turns out; though Ogo’s development is done rather better. There is a good deal of humour in the book, as one would expect, as well as danger and excitement.
It’s impossible to tell how Diana Wynne Jones herself would have completed this (though I wonder what Neil Gaiman, who was a close friend, would have made of the commission, had he taken it on) it’s not a bad effort to close a writing career which has given so much pleasure to me and to many other fans. It’s not her best book (though I’d have great difficulty in defining just one for that title), but there is much to enjoy in it – and you may not have the same quibbles with it that I did.