The fascinating thing about The Islands of Chaldea is not that it is Diana Wynne Jones’s last book but that she died with it unfinished and it was completed and published posthumously. DWJ’s younger sister Ursula has given fans an extraordinary gift by seamlessly integrating an ending to the unfinished manuscript. We will never know if it is the ending Diana would’ve written – because she left no clues, no notes, and an entire committee of family and friends brainstorming for hours could not figure out what she might have intended for the story. Nevertheless, Ursula’s ending is fitting and satisfying and a wonderful tribute to Diana’s memory and the power of sisterhood.
As for the story – narrated by failed wise-woman initiate Aileen, it relates the events of the doomed quest by her Aunt Beck (the current Wise Woman to the King) to rescue High Prince Alasdair. Tagging along are Aileen as her apprentice and ward, foppish Prince Ivar (whom Aileen has ear-marked as her future husband – don’t worry, she comes to her senses!), and Ivar’s valet, Ogo. Along the way they collect more members for the motley rescue team, including an ugly cat and a monk with his prescient talking parrot. And, naturally, it becomes obvious that, far from failing her initiation as she believed, Aileen is such a powerful wise woman that her experience had been so pure and clear as to seem normal and ordinary.
Then Beck, out of arrogance, makes a series of misjudgements that result in her falling under a curse and becoming childlike and useless. It is up to Aileen to seize the leadership of their band before Ivar can do so, and keep them together and travelling onwards in their quest (instead of simply giving up and going home as Ivar wishes). For she has realised that none of them were ever expected to survive this quest – someone, in fact, is banking on and facilitating their demise – and “home” is now the most dangerous place in Chaldea.
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