Diana Wynne Jones (completed by Ursula Jones), The Islands of Chaldea (2014)
Like many who love the books of Diana Wynne Jones, I was intrigued last year to learn that her sister, Ursula Jones, was completing a final manuscript left unfinished at the author’s death. How could anyone take up the mantle of one of the most fantastic fantasy writers ever? Could such an unusual collaboration work? And what would the result be like?
Now published at last, The Islands of Chaldea is revealed to be a light, charming, gentle book, in some ways atypical for Diana Wynne Jones. It doesn’t have the bite of a Witch Week, nor the dizzying inventiveness of a Hexwood, nor the emotional impact of a Fire and Hemlock. It’s a straightforward quest story, without much in the way of twists and turns. What it does have is a nicely imagined setting–the titular islands of Skarr, Bernica, Gallis, and Logra, which clearly correlate to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England in our world, but as if seen through a magical fracturing glass. It also features some engaging characters, centering around our narrator Aileen, a Wise Woman in training who has just failed her initiation (or has she?). Along with her doughty Aunt Beck, Wise Woman of Skarr; Ivar, the pompous prince Aileen has for some reason decided she’s going to marry; and Ogo, a Logran boy everybody dismisses as useless, she is sent on a mission to lift the spell that’s cut off Logra from the other islands. To do so, the group must travel through each island, meeting dangers and unexpected helpers along the way.
In general, I found The Islands of Chaldea more cohesive and satisfying than some of Jones’s other late works, such as House of Many Ways and Enchanted Glass. The thread provided by the journey, which creates most of the interest of the story in an episodic travelogue sort of way, helped to anchor it. There was not a great deal of complexity in the relationships between the main characters or in their inner development, but still I cared for and believed in them. There were passages of real beauty and sparkling moments of humor. I found it to be a worthy way to end an outstanding writer’s career.
It seems to me that Islands might appeal to a slightly younger set of readers than DWJ’s usual audience. That’s not a bad thing, as a new generation can start to enjoy her fantastic books at an even earlier age. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that in recent years the publisher (in the US at least) has been manipulating the layout of her books to make them look more substantial, puffed up to “Potter” dimensions. Islands for example has large type, generous margins and extremely wide gaps between the lines, making it thick and chunky rather than the slender volume it would be with more normal typography. Personally I find this irritating and misleading, and I devoutly hope that at some point this trend will fizzle out and future editions be more elegantly presented.
The completion of the novel is quite seamless. Ursula Jones did an excellent job of carrying on wherever her sister left off (nobody, apparently, has yet been able to detect that exact point), and kept the tone and spirit of the book going to the end, which, if not exactly surprising, is at least respectably done. The relative simplicity of the narrative definitely made this easier for her, yet it’s still a notable achievement. In an afterword she gives an interesting account of how she took on the task and how Diana seemed to be guiding her along the way. I, for one, am grateful that she did.