The Islands of Chaldea is the last novel from Diana Wynne Jones. Almost finished when she died and completed by her sister, it is sad to think that it the last time we will get a peek into her vast and varied imagination. However, I am MUCH HAPPIER with this as her final book than I was with Earwig and the Witch being her final. While not as wonderful as my favorite DWJ books, it is still very good. And a not as a good as the best DWJ is still far superior to almost everything else.
This is a review of an ARC received from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.
Aileen comes from a long line of magic makers, and her Aunt Beck is the most powerful magician on Skarr. But Aileen's magic has yet to reveal itself, even though she is old enough and it should have, by now. When Aileen is sent over the sea on a mission for the King, she worries that she'll be useless and in the way. A powerful (but mostly invisible) cat changes all of that-and with every obstacle Aileen faces, she becomes stronger and more confident, until her magic blooms.
Aileen is the next in a long line of Wise Women. She is supposed to have magic and power, but she messes up her Initiation and is left wondering if she is bound to be a disappointment. This is hard for her living in the shadow of her Aunt Beck, who is highly powerful and a strong, decisive, no-nonsense personality. Aileen is smart and resourceful. She pays attention. And even though she feels inferior at times, she uses these situations as an opportunity to learn. When Beck is taken out of commission and unable to lead their expedition, Aileen rises to the occasion and truly comes into her own. She must think quickly and have much courage, and is a truly great heroine. The cast of supporting characters is as diverse and quirky as one would expect from a Jones novel. On the quest with Aileen and her aunt are a prince, a boy exiled from his land, a priest, a parrot, and a strangely magical ugly cat. I loved every single one of them, their interactions, and the dynamic of the group. Aileen and Ogo (exiled boy) are my favorites, while the others provided a good deal of comedy relief. Relief sometimes needed as the group encounters more than one Queen who wishes them ill will, a ship captain who doesn't seem to care whether they survive the voyage or not, cultural differences that almost see them arrested more than once, and finally the confrontation with a villain willing to destroy the world to gain power over it. Good good stuff.
The Islands of Chaldea are varied and the inhabitants of each have different cultures and norms, but they are all connected. You can see the influences of Scotland, Ireland, and England in them but they are their own places as well. The world-building is excellent as always and comes with no explanation. They are an experience and the reader does experience them thoroughly as the intrepid group of heroes makes their way through them in an attempt to reach the one blocked island that has been separated from the rest by a barrier. It is a fascinating tale and one that moves quickly. I did thing some things at the end were a bit rushed and could have used more explanation. (How things resolved in Prince Ivar's situation for one. That was a bit abrupt.) For the most part though I was delighted with the story from beginning to end. It is Aileen's story above all and I love how everything worked out for her.
Fans of DWJ are not going to be able to resist this one, nor should they try. I was nervous going in, but that was soon replaced with joy and delight as I sank into the engaging and fun story.
I read an e-galley made available via the publisher, Greenwillow Books, on Edelweiss. The Islands of Chaldea is available for purchase on April 22.