Book Review — The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones, completed by Ursula Jones

May 6, 2014 in Reviews by Irulan Horner

Diana Wynne Jones sadly died before she could complete this book and her sister Ursula Jones took up the mantle. There was no ending for the manuscript and no clue in Diana’s notes as to how the tale was meant to turn out. Ursula, no stranger to writing for children herself, went for it and completed the story with a dramatic flourish.

Twelve-year-old Aileen and her aunt Beck, the Wise Woman of Skarr, are sent off on a quest to break the spell keeping the Island of Logra hidden from the rest of the Islands of Chaldea. Their task is to breach the magical barrier and rescue the long-lost prince Alasdair and his bard Gareth, Aileen’s father. But first they must enlist the aid of one person from each of the four islands to help them with their seemingly impossible task.

This story swept me along in a whirlwind of adventure; filled with evocative descriptions of the stunning landscapes and peppered with plenty of lively dialogue. Along the way this ever-growing band of unlikely heroes encounter whiskey-guzzling priests, an enchanted herd of donkeys and a drunken red queen who impede them by stealing their money, eating their food and cursing Aunt Beck.

It is clear that the four Islands of Chaldea are based on the British Isles. From the lonely gorse-filled mountains of Skarr to the cultivated lands of Logra, and from the diminutive green-clad monks from rainy Bernica to the fire breathing red lizard from Gallis, these echoes are not just restricted to the landscape and their inhabitants. The story is a backdrop for religious and political allegory that may well be overlooked by children, however any British or Irish adult reader could not fail to notice it.

I adore Aileen’s magical feline companion, however I am disappointed this wonderful striped and spotted cat ended up with the name Plug-Ugly. A possible meaning is that of a ‘tough thug hired to intimidate‘, which could be the apt reason Wynne Jones chose it.

Children who enjoy Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch and Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series will love this coming-of-age fantasy tale. Diana Wynne Jones’ last ever book, lovingly completed by her sister, is a truly magical adventure-story for 10+, filled with everything you would expect from the Godmother of Fantasy.