The brand new and final novel from the magical and whimsical pen of ‘the Godmother of Fantasy’, Diana Wynne Jones; co-authored with her sister Ursula Jones.
Aileen was supposed to grow up magical – just like the other women in her family. Unfortunately, she’s just found out that the magic seems to have skipped a generation… but that’s not her biggest problem right now.
In her world, there are four Islands of Chaldea. The largest and most magical island has been cut off from the other three for decades – and is slowly draining the magic from them.
But now a prophecy has come to light. Someone from Aileen’s island will gather a man from each of the three islands, bring down the magical barrier, and unite them with the fourth island again. And according to the king, that someone is Aileen’s Aunt – who insists on dragging Aileen along. AND the boy Aileen is sure she’ll marry (one day); AND the local boy with more brawn then brain. Someone seems to want to stop them too… someone with an interest in keeping the Islands apart. But still, with magic on their side, nothing can go wrong. Right?
Source: Received as a gift
I love Diana Wynne Jones’ books. She’s was a real master at strange and whimsical magics as well as strong characters and wonderfully absurd plots. Some of her books are real favourites of mine that I gladly read over and over as if they’re old friends (Howl’s Moving Castle, the Chrestomanci series, The Dark Lord of Derkholm to name my absolute favourites), and while this book has glimpses of her brilliance, it also feels strangely like an early work. Actually it reminded me a lot of the Dalemark books, which although I enjoyed I only have vague memories of. Kind of like this one.
The story on the surface is fairly simple – a quest to reunite the four islands separated by magic, and also recover the lost prince. It gets more complicated when the prophecy of one man from each island gets involved. Add in magic, a bit of religion and four guardian beasts and we’re off in true DWJ style. Well, sort of. I actually found the beginning of this book hard to get into. The first person narration from Aileen about her time in the Place and her failed initiation in magic just made me annoyed at the girl, and although she’s supposedly twelve at the start, by the end I had real trouble believing she was so young.
I didn’t find Aileen on the whole to be a particularly strong or memorable character. She never grabbed my attention and although she does take on more responsibility as the story progressed I never felt like she was ever all that special. Even her own father doesn’t seem that bothered when he meets up with her, and I was slightly confused by how many memories she had of a man she’d last seen when she was three.
Then again, none of the characters were as strong as I would normally have expected. None of them are stand-out heroes or memorable or attention grabbing. There’s no Christopher Chant (or even Cat) here, no Howl or Sophie. There’s a grumpy aunt with magic, a pleasant, peaceful monk who eats a lot, a cowardly, rather dim prince and a servant that everyone is horrible to. Plus a collection of animals – including the requisite cat. All of them had potential for real DWJ magic, but none of them quite made it.
I did, however, love the three islands of Chaldea. Skarr is clearly Scotland with its craggy landscape, plaid and pipers; Bernica was a green and glorious Ireland, complete with a leprechaun and mysterious lady; Welsh Gallis was my favourite, though, with its bards that sing the landscape beautiful. Each island had a different magic, although I couldn’t quite get a hold on just what Bernica’s or Skarr’s was, while the English Logra was by comparison vague and not particularly detailed.
After everything that went before, in a slightly meandering style, the ending was fairly rushed and a bit more predictable than I would have expected – which is to be expected when trying to piece together a story without any notes or any real clues. I think Ursula Jones did a good job of pulling this tale together, but the whole thing did lack a certain spark.
If you’re new to DWJ’s work, firstly, you have such a treat in store! And more importantly don’t start here. For existing fans this is a fond farewell to a master, which might not quite live up to the height of her brilliance, but contains enough hints and glimpses to raise a smile – and perhaps encourage you to return to one of your older favourites.
The Islands of Chaldea is Out Now!
Visit Diana Wynne Jones for more details.