The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones / completed by Ursula Jones. First read: 350/350.
The Islands of Chaldea is simple and gentle in comparison with many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, and also relatively brief. There are four islands; one is blocked off by a magical barrier and the high king’s son (and his hunting party) are trapped behind it. Only a Wise Woman, the guardians of the islands, and a man from each island can tear it down. Aileen accompanies her wise woman Aunt Beck on the quest; but it is Aileen’s story, so it contrives fairly quickly to put her in charge of the quest and its snowballing (but never crowded) troupe of adventurers. She learns rather classically to understand and use power she did not know she had–and also how to stop thinking that incredibly irritating prince is a perfect future husband.
The pacing is not perfect–some of the jumps and skips in character development. Literal and personal growth spurts are incredibly common to DWJ’s young characters, and they are always surprising. Here they are a little more rushed and less convincing than in some of her books. (For example, Ogo gets very much taller in a few short weeks while they’re traveling, and Aileen is supposed to be impressed by prince Ivar, but he’s so blatantly whiny and pointless from day one that even Aileen doesn’t seem to really think much of him.)
However–the story pushes along, and it feels important. It feels like a real rich place that has been alive and magical for thousands and thousands of years. Green Greet the parrot feels like the heart of his island. Plug-Ugly (the hideous cat not drawn as hideous, I notice, on any of the covers) is magical in such a specifically real CAT way that he feels equally true and credible as a common cat and the soul of his lost land, Lone. The whole world felt like a blanket you could wrap yourself in, with the tug of the tide underneath you; and it was fun. It felt like such a comfort and relief.
I’m really glad about that. This is the last new Diana Wynne Jones book. She grew too sick to write before she finished it, but her sister Ursula found the partial manuscript (with a habitual lack of extra-textual hints or notes of any kind) and ended up writing an ending to it herself. It’s a lovely success and I’m really glad she did–some of DWJ’s later books (The Pinhoe Egg, The Game, and Enchanted Glass) are among my least favorite of her books, but Islands of Chaldea feels full and perfect.
There is speculation about where Ursula’s writing begins (and she says at the end that no one had guessed correctly to her where the line is). I myself have a very specific idea of the moment–those who do not want to know, avoid the rest of this paragraph: I think it happens when they first arrive on Gallis, somewhere in the time when they’re being shuffled between priests. It’s about here that the characters grow a little more aware of people’s body types. Aileen’s narration reminds you she speaks from the future with slightly more frequency than it should. At one point you read the word “panties,” which as far as I recall offhand happens in no other book by Diana Wynne Jones. And there are lines, here and there, that give you a little more help than Diana likely would.
But with the line in mine, the book is still satisfying, rhythmic, round, and full of living green mythology. There is imperfect pacing–but it did not ruin the soothing, confident, comfortable push of the story toward a good ending. There are those tiny differences you can detect between Ursula and Diana–but the tiny differences would not be weaknesses in a book that wasn’t matching two writers to one incredibly particular, practiced style.
Without the line in mind–well, I do not think a new Diana Wynne Jones reader will sense the line at all, and I can’t think of a reason in the world not to hand this book to a young lover of fantasy. Or to yourself. If you’re old.