When Diana Wynne-Jones passed away in 2011, she left behind a partly-finished book. It was left up to her sister Ursula to complete it.
And so the world receives the final enchanting novel by this wildly underrated author -- "The Islands of Chaldea," a clever and magical adventure across an alternate version of the British Isles. It's literally impossible to tell where Ursula worked on this book, because it seems so typical of her sister's style: cats, spells, domineering older relatives and strange conspiracies.
Years ago, magicians sealed off the land of Logra from the rest of the world, and somebody kidnapped the crown prince Alasdair. Now there is a prophecy making the rounds that if a wise woman travels through certain countries, with a man of each country, she will be able to make it into Logra. So the High King enlists wise woman Aunt Beck and wise-woman-in-training Aileen to make the journey.
And to represent the various lands, they have bratty Prince Ivar (whom Aileen wants to marry), despised orphan Ogo, and green monk Finn (who is the keeper of an oracular bird). Oh, and Plug-Ugly, a magical cat who develops a fondness for Aileen.
Unfortunately, a drunken queen casts a botched spell on Aunt Beck, which leaves the whole disastrous quest in Aileen's hands. But reaching Logra turns out to be the least of her problems -- because once their little gang gets past the barrier, they find themselves neck-deep in a deadly Logran conspiracy. To save them all, Aileen will have to summon all her knowledge of magic to save the day.
There's a bittersweet feel to "The Islands of Chaldea" that has nothing to do with the book itself, and everything to do with... well, unless another manuscript is found in a trunk, we'll never get another Diana Wynne Jones novel again. It's even sadder because this little story has so many glorious Jonesian flourishes -- we have a magic cat, quirky characters, secrets, and it's all on an alternate-universe version of Britain.
On a side note, Ursula Jones deserves a round of applause for not only finishing the book, but managing to pull off her sister's style. You literally cannot tell where Diana ends and Ursula begins.
That style is distinctly British, quick and clever, with very vivid descriptions ("It was laden with spells that were hanging over him in brown, lumpy strings, like dirty, badly spun wool") and lots of humorous moments (“Address me as Your Honour!”). And Aileen's quest through the various islands of Chaldea is a pleasant experience, as the characters careen through situations both grim and comic.
It doesn't hurt that almost all of the characters are pretty endearing, especially Aileen. This is an "ordinary" kid with powers beyond her knowledge, and who has more wise-woman knowledge than she realizes. She also has a lot of baggage, courtesy of her domineering aunt and a father she has never seen -- but her slow-blooming relationship with Ogo is pretty sweet. It's hard to see why she's ever determined to marry a brat like Ivar.
Ivar is mostly there for the comic relief, since bleating that he's a prince is pretty much his defense against everything. We're there for the competent characters -- the quirky and pious Finn, the endearing underdog Ogo, and the magical animals who are more than they seem. Well, one of them can turn invisible and teleport, and the other can tell the future... which is pretty interesting.
The problem? The final act is kind of rushed, introducing the main villain pretty late in the story. And the climactic battle is literally the last scene in the book. We rocket through it in a few pages, only to crash right into the coda. It could have used another chapter or so.
"The Islands of Chaldea" has a rushed ending, but the final novel by Diana Wynne-Jones is a bittersweetly enjoyable experience -- funny, fast-moving and beautifully written by Jones and her capable sister. Farewell, Diana. We'll miss you.