2014’s The Islands of Chaldea was Diana Wynne Jones’ final novel. Unfinished at the time of Jones’ death in 2011, it was completed by Diana Wynne Jones’ sister, Ursula Jones.
The women of Aileen’s family all undergo a rite of passage, one which they hope will lead to a vision and special powers. Aileen is sure that she failed her vision quest. No vision, no evident power or talent. So she is puzzled when her Aunt Beck insists on bringing her to a consultation with King Kenig of the island of Skarr.
This, as you might expect, is the start of her adventures.
Present at the audience (clearly the real reason for the audience) is High King Farlane of all Chaldea (as in ancient Ireland, there are kings and there is a high king). Farlane is wrestling with an issue that affects all of Chaldea and he believes with good reason that Beck can be of use to him.
The islands of Chaldea are, in clockwise order, Gallis, Bernica, and Skarr, Another island, Logra, lies to the east. Logra is best known for its many attempts to conquer Chaldea. The latest war ended after Logra sealed itself behind a magical barrier.
No one from the other islands has been able to breach the barrier. But they keep trying, as they hope to rescue hostages whom Logra took during the war. One hostage is Farlane’s son, crown prince Alasdair; another is Aileen’s father.
The Chaldeans would also like to see just what is happening behind the barrier. Preparations for another war? Are there Logran spies wandering the islands? After all, the Lograns may not be restricted by their own magical barriers.
It is said that the barrier can be breached and the hostages rescued if a Wise One travels round the islands of Chaldea, accompanied by a man from each island. The High King believes Aunt Beck to be the Wise One in question. Aileen is added to the company because she was at the meeting and now Knows Too Much. At least Aileen will get to travel with handsome Prince Ivar, although his charms dwindle somewhat as Aileen realizes how little is going on behind Ivar’s pleasing features.
Their travels are not without incident. Some highly placed people seem to find the barrier convenient. The baggage turns out to be full of cursed items; the funds for the expedition seem to have been replaced by bags of rocks. But Aunt Beck is determined … and so is Aileen.
This is an oddly constrained setting. Just four islands. No continents. No continent-spanning empires. No international trade. Are the islanders alone in a world ocean?
Jones could not have meant the book as a parable about Brexit, (she died five years before Brexit) but it’s prescient that walling Logra off from Chaldea has done a real number on the Logran economy. The ensuing chaos has been used by the government to justify increased austerity and autocracy1.
The book takes up another recurring theme in Jones’ work: characters realizing that their families are not great people and do not have their best interests at hear. Poor dim Ivar: not even the Spare Heir but the One Nobody Will Miss, which is why he is sent off to Logra with Beck and Aileen’s company.
It’s not hard to guess who is working for Team Evil. Aileen and chums are quick to pick up the blatant clues, mainly because the antagonists are confident enough of success that they aren’t trying too hard to conceal what they are doing.
This isn’t quite up to Jones’ best. It was written under trying circumstances and finished by someone who had to make educated guesses as to where Jones was going with her plot. Jones on her own has written better books. However, the book was still a tolerable read. It’s much better than most necrolaborations.
1: To the extent Logra has competent government, it is thanks to the efforts of its small foreign population: the prisoners and hostages Logra grabbed during the last war.