No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, October 02, 2014

2014/32: The Islands of Chaldea – Diana Wynne Jones with Ursula Jones

The Lady Loma seemed to cast a shadow across the beasts as they came near her, and that shadow showed another shadow inside each donkey, a shadow bent and skinny, with only two legs. I was pretty sure those donkeys had once been men and women. And I was very frightened indeed. I just hoped my aunt would be a bit more polite when she saw the shadows too. But Aunt Beck didn’t seem to notice.

Diana's last novel features many of the themes familiar from her earlier work: young women with self-esteem issues, ancient secrets, apparently mundane companions who aren't what they seem, animals with attitude, and a lot of humour.

Aileen, like all the women of her family – the Wise Women of Skarr, who marry off their male children outside the family -- went to the Place when she turned twelve. Unlike her relatives, she didn't have a vision: her only surviving female relative, Aunt Beck, will just have to carry on being the Wise Woman. Aileen's mother is dead and her father is lost. He may be on one of the other Islands -- Bernica, or Gallis, or Logra – though Logra has been unreachable for the last decade due to murky sorcery. This means, too, that the magical Guardian of the East has become separated from the other Guardians, which does not bode well for anybody.

Aileen ends up accompanying her aunt, and a motley collection of followers, on a mission to rescue the kidnapped High Prince from Logra. It quickly becomes apparent that their pre-mission briefing was somewhat incomplete: why else would the money-bag be full of stones, the ship's captain over-keen to maroon them on a deserted island, and the evil stepmother's attempt to poison Aileen's cousin, young Ivar …

Aileen's true powers, and the fate of her father (not to mention the natures of several of her travelling companions) are revealed gradually, and the ending of the novel is satisfying unless you are rooting for the other side.

I couldn't spot the joins where Ursula Jones, Diana's sister, had picked up her unfinished draft: I did wonder if the climax was a little more abrupt that DWJ would have written it, but then I remembered plenty of counter-examples. The Islands of Chaldea isn't in my top five DWJ novels*, but there is stiff competition and it's by no means the least appealing of her works.

*If you're interested: Eight Days of Luke, Dogsbody, Hexwood, Howl's Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock.

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