Greenwillow Books, $17.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 0062295071, April 2014
Aileen was supposed to grow up magical – just like the other women in her family. Unfortunately, she’s just found out that the magic seems to have skipped a generation… but that’s not her biggest problem right now. In her world, there are four Islands of Chaldea. The largest and most magical island has been cut off from the other three for decades – and is slowly draining the magic from them. But now a prophecy has come to light. Someone from Aileen’s island will gather a man from each of the three islands, bring down the magical barrier, and unite them with the fourth island again. And according to the king, that someone is Aileen’s Aunt – who insists on dragging Aileen along. AND the boy Aileen is sure she’ll marry (one day); AND the local boy with more brawn then brain. Someone seems to want to stop them too… someone with an interest in keeping the Islands apart. But still, with magic on their side, nothing can go wrong. Right?
One of my greatest literary regrets is not discovering Diana Wynne Jones as a child. I don’t know how I missed her. Poorly stocked mall bookstore? The fact that my rich school district couldn’t be bothered to provide varied, updated library materials even though the football team certainly lacked for nothing? Anyway, I would have adored her even more as a tween than I did when I finally started reading her in college. She’s brilliant and funny and captures all the wonder and peril of the fantasy genre. Her death represents an astronomical loss in the world of youth literature. We’re just lucky she left us so much to remember her by.
This novel, her last, was completed by her sister. Having not read anything by Ursula Jones, I can’t say whether or not there’s an apparent seam between her sections and Wynne Jones’s sections, but I did feel a slight lack of uniformity. I can best explain it by saying that the book starts off with wonderful promise and depth but soon starts to feel very paint-by-numbers in the writing department.
It’s definitely a nice little book, typical old-school fantasy: Frogs are princes, princes are frogs (metaphorically). Curses are cast, wise women act as change agents, mystical beasts transform into mystical-er beasts. Of course, the heroes travel on a quest through many strange lands via many different modes of transportation. While it’s not the pinnacle of the author’s distinguished bibliography, in many ways Islands of Chaldea is the perfect sendoff because it’s such a classic fantasy story and features one of her strong heroines.
Goodbye, Diana Wynne Jones. I read you too late, and you were gone too soon. May you never go out of print, even unto the end of our species.
Recommend to: Tween fantasy buffs, fans of the author
To buy or not to buy: It may not be her best, but mediocre for Diana Wynne Jones is still a first purchase, whereas mediocre for most authors is just…well, mediocre.