Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Island of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones

The Island of Chaldea 
by Diana Wynne Jones (and Ursula Jones)

Publisher:  Greenwillow

Format: Hardback 
Copyright: 2014
Pages: 356

Genre: Children's fantasy
Source: own book

From the cover:

How are you supposed to turn into a Wise Woman if your powers don't show up ? 

Aileen comes from a long line of magicworkers. And her own gifts should have been even greater. But she failed her initiation so completely that she had doubts she'll ever become as magical as her aunt Beck, the most powerful magicworker in Skarr.

So when the High King sends Aileen and Aunt Beck on a secret — and suspicious — quest across all the Islands of Chaldea, Aileen worries she'll only be in the way. 

Hmmm, as Aunt Beck would say. What blather. 

The quest is not at all what it seems, and Aileen must puzzle out her own way after ... [too many spoilers! I'm not gonna finish typing this all in!] Don't read the description in the front cover!  Just read the book.

I spotted this book when I was at the bookstore picking up some end of year gifts for my daughter's teacher (I got some books for her classroom). When I saw Diana Wynne Jones' name I made a squeee noise. Howl's Moving Castle is one of my favorite books ever. (I like Hayao Miyazaki's film to but I have to leave a good time gap between engaging each of them - Miyazaki took the book's title, some characters, and few ideas and then went rocketing off in his own unique direction so comparing the book to the movie is like comparing apple pie with roast turkey - just not possible, so having them in the same brain space makes me unhappy). I also love the Derkholm books - so lots of happys seeing a new book since Diana Wynne Jones passed away in 2011. This book was from an incomplete manuscript that she stopped working on when she got too sick to continue. Her sister, Ursula, finished the book. 

I did reign in my expectations - I knew that she was ill when she was writing, so I wasn't expecting Howl or the like. Even "bad" DWJ is better than most of the stuff out there, so I was willing to buy the book in hardback. Now that I have completed the book I can say, well, I enjoyed it but it really needed some better editing. 

There are some serious issues with the timeline - when the barrier went up, people's memories of events, Ogo's life - things are a bit of a hash. According to the story, the barrier went up 10 years ago (this is said explicitly), when Ogo was 5 (? so he is just 15-16 now???), and the Prince was kidnapped a year later - nine years ago. So, things have been this way for a decade, but the way the story presents this is very confused - sometimes sounding like it has only been a couple of years, like those ships left in the harbor should have been in much worse shape after a decade - other times sounding like it has been ages. It pulled me out of the story several times as I sat there thinking, "That doesn't make any sense." Once they  reach Logra I had to go back to the beginning and re-read so of it because I got so confused and found out, no it wasn't me, this really didn't make sense. Also, the story is pretty slow moving for the first section and then the ending flies past so fast it is hard to follow what is happening - the uneven pacing got quite distracting.

Now I have been a real downer so far, but to be clear -  there were things I liked. The world building was interesting - the differences in the islands for example - I would like to have learned more there actually - and the characterization is good - the leads all have distinct personalities. Aileen makes a very sympathetic protagonist and, while we did start creeping too close to generic YA snowflake girl, I absolutely loved it when Ogo basically told Aileen to get over herself. That was awesome.

I was not as enamored with the villains - cardboard city. I could even see Keanu Reeves' Don John from Much Ado about Nothing "it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain" - I am going to be a cackling maniac now just because I can - Bwah ha Ha !!  - reasons ?? I don't need no stinking reasons! 

Oops, sorry. Ah, humm. At points it really did seem like the book version of a B-movie chewing up the scenery, which was off-putting. There should have been a better reason for all of this - it was hinted at in the beginning of the book when they discuss how the different islands have different resources. That really should have been expanded on.

Honestly, this book reads like a mid-generation draft where ideas are still being thrashed out and the author is still trying to figure out how exactly she wants to tie up the loose ends - the bones are there but the muscles are not all connected (what a yucky metaphor!) You can see a better book hiding in there. I am making this sound worse then it really was though - as I said, I did like the book.

Well this is a rambling blather I have generated. To sum up ... if you are a fan, this is definitely a better book to say goodbye to Diana Wynne Jones with than Earwig and the Witch. Read it, but you might want to wait for the paperback if you are not a diehard fan. If you have not read DWJ's yet start with something else - Dark Lord of Derkholm, Howl's Moving Castle, or Archer's Goon.

Um - I am still lousy at turning this into a rating - three and a half to four stars?  I can't honestly say that I am seeing much re-reading potential here - Liked, not loved. 


  1. Yeah, I'm trying very hard to keep my expectations for this book at a reasonable level. I don't want to be disappointed in what will legitimately be my absolute last new Diana Wynne Jones book for all of time. (Aaaaa that makes me so sad.)

    1. Agreed. It was really tough trying to write something fair when you have nostalgia competing with high expectations. I want to go back and re-read almost everything now.

  2. Uh oh, cardboard city?! Noooooooo.

    It's a shame this one ended up disappointing--it's always such a bummer when favorite authors don't end up delivering. I still need to read HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE sometime. I loved the film, but I'm sure the book is even better.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    1. Yeah - that was disappointing. Mostly what killed me is that I really do think this was a mid-generation draft and that she would have caught the things that bugged me and polished everything if she had been given a chance.

      With Howl - the book and the movie are two very different animals. I am really interested in finding out what someone who saw the movie first thinks of the book. I read the book when it came out and fell in love with it, so the first time I saw the movie I was - um - nonplussed I guess is the best word. Once I let my Miyazaki brain take over I was okay. Castle in the Sky is also a DWJ's title - which also threw me - they have nothing to do with each other at all.


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