The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones

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The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: The people of Logra have kidnapped the High Prince of Chaldea and thrown a magical barrier around its island shores. Aileen's aunt Beck, the powerful Wise Woman of Skarr, is sent to rescue him, along with a motley crowd including an extremely greedy (and occasionally invisible) cat, but is she the one who will save the day – or is it the apparently useless Aileen?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Harper Collins
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780007542239

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Imagine a story – a good old-fashioned adventure with journeys and magic and villains and young people finding their strengths despite the odds, and coming at last to the place they belong. Then imagine another story, a heart-touching one this time, about the writing of that story, and you have the whole of this charming book.

It's Diana Wynne Jones at her best, for all that it was finished after her death by her sister Ursula. It may not have the epic marvel of the Chrestomanci books, but it is nonetheless a splendid story with perils and exploits, disappointments and achievements in shed-loads before the good guys triumph and the bad ones get what's coming. The tropes of fantasy are there, of course, but as so often with Diana Wynne Jones they are subverted and lightened, infused with dashes of humour that speed the story as it dances across the page. Aileen is a traditional outcast - of a sort - because she has just failed her initiation to become a Wise Woman. True, she has succeeded in losing both parents as the heroes and heroines of fantasy are required to do, but she is not cruelly treated: the stern aunt who takes her in shows her a constant if undemonstrative affection. Other outcasts are not so lucky, but make no mistake: their day will come. There are princes galore, handsome and otherwise, and other royals too – fat ones, thin ones, kind ones, cruel ones and even, memorably, an extremely drunk one. There are prisons to break into – and out of, which is in the nature of things a lot more difficult – and all the flavours of magic you could desire, from bards who wander around making the place look nicer with their songs to healers who stop you turning into a donkey.

Then there are the four islands on which our adventure is played out. They are delightfully Celtic without any undue emphasis on the fact, and despite being huddled together in the sea they differ in their weather, their magics, their religions and their crops. Together they make a harmonious and beneficial whole, and Aileen's ability to define and distinguish them by their scents brings them more vividly to life than pages of description could.

And then, of course, there's the humour. It's served up in light, delicate touches which cause the reader to smile rather than laugh out loud, but its presence creates an atmosphere of warmth and reassurance that eases the way through the dark and scary times. The statues which stomp and crush, and look rather wistful when they discover they're not invited to the after-party, the parrot that turns silly folks' words back on themselves, and the here-again gone-again cat who really doesn't care where he leaves the left-overs from his rat dinner . . . who could resist?

As Neil Gaiman said, reading this book is like being given extra time with her. Don't bother trying to work out which Jones wrote what, but do read the Afterword with its affectionate account of the difficulties of taking over a story from a big sister who never liked you touching her stuff. Like the book itself it is gentle and warm and intriguing. Fans of the great DWJ will surely be enchanted.

Power of Three is another very good book by the same author about a young person who seems to be the only one in the family without special gifts. And if you don't already know the Chrestomanci series, do start with Charmed Life, which is a real classic of its kind.

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Buy The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones at Amazon.com.

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