A bittersweet parting gift
IT would be disingenuous for any true fan of the late, great Diana Wynne Jones to say they could reviewThe Islands Of Chaldea without any bias. For this is the book we didn’t know we were getting, that one final flight of fancy we are able to take into the wonderfully weird realms she excels at creating.
It was the book Wynne Jones was working on when she died in 2011, now finally available to us after being completed by her sister Ursula Jones. Naturally, it comes laced with the kind of sentimentality that makes neutrality a tad difficult.
And yet, a few pages in, all thoughts of how or why the book was written flit away, as one is drawn deeper and deeper into the tale. Chaldea is vintage Wynne Jones, with its distinctive characters, wry humour and unexpected twists and turns, all liberally sprinkled with her patented brand of magic. It is near impossible to discern where Ursula’s touch is, which is to her credit.
The story is set, naturally, on the Islands of Chaldea, which are made up of Skarr, Bernica, Gallis and Logra, each with their own leaders, customs and beliefs, not to mention quirks and foibles. Twelve-year-old Aileen, descended from a family of Wise Women in Skarr, is in the midst of an existential crisis: she’s failed her initiation into magic. Raised by her no-nonsense Aunt Beck, the current Wise Woman, Aileen has no idea what she’s supposed to do next.
Meanwhile, there are larger problems at hand. The island of Logra has long since walled itself off from the others with magic, with the High Prince Alasdair of Chaldea trapped there. Legend has it, however, that the magical barrier can be broken if a Wise Woman of Skarr crosses it with a man from each of the islands.
And so Aunt Beck is sent to rescue Alasdair, with Aileen in tow. There is more afoot, however, than they first know, and soon, Aileen realises that she is more than just a tag-along on this quest.
It is difficult to break down what Chaldea is about, as Wynne Jones employs her usual layered storytelling style. Yes, it is the story of a girl getting away from the shadow of her family and defining herself; however, it is also a celebration of the underdog, and finding strength in the most unexpected of places. And tying it all together is a rather sinister plot involving betrayal and double-crossing.
Like most of Wynne Jones’s books, the story deals in metaphors without being precious about it.
The depiction of the Islands of Chaldea, obviously a tongue-in-cheek reference to Britain, is delightful, with each island brought to life in vivid detail. Her sly nods to real-life issues, such as inefficient monarchs, pedantic religious leaders and political power-play, only add to the book’s richness.
Populating the story are more of Wynne Jones’s wonderfully imperfect characters. Even while writing for children, she has always kept her characters complicatedly human, and Chaldea’s characters are no exception.
Will The Islands Of Chaldea be remembered as one of Wynne Jones’s best works? Probably not, for it lacks a certain edge, a subtle tinge of darkness, that the most celebrated of her books have. It is, however, a more than worthy addition to her body of work – and by reminding us yet again of her singular way with fantasy, it is also a bittersweet parting gift.