Tuesday, March 25, 2014

#DWJMarch: Early Reader Discussion -- The Islands of Chaldea

The Islands of Chaldea. Le sigh. Is this really Diana's last novel or do we think/hope/pray that there is a secret treasure trove of three-quarter finished stories somewhere that just need to be polished and released? We can dream, right?

The US release of this book is April 22 so, of course, many readers don't have this book in their hands yet. I don't want anyone's experience of this book ruined so here's fair warning. Everything below the next book cover, including comments, could have spoilers.

For those who want to know my basic impressions without giving anything away, I'll say this -- I devoured it in about a day and a half and I can honestly say that it's quite good on first read and it's definitely DWJ. Ursula's completion is totally acceptable and I couldn't tell where Diana left off and Ursula picked up in the story. It's one of Diana's younger books (middle grade) which was a little strange but also a somewhat fitting place to come back to at the end of her career/life. It has so many recognizable elements in it that it just felt right and I know that most of you are going to really enjoy it. And have your tissues ready before you read the Afterword because it will break your heart all over again that the world lost Diana far, far too early. This is the quote from the back of the UK version --
Getting to read an extra Diana Wynne Jones novel, almost finished at the time of her death, is like being given extra time with her: the wisdom, the humour and the storytelling magic were hers until the end... I am only grateful that she took us on this final journey. -- Neil Gaiman

Now, for those who have read the book --

What did you think of the pacing of the story?
I thought it was a bit slow at the start and a bit fast at the end but just right through the middle. The length of the book was good for the story. Any longer and it would have been too much journey for such small islands.

We don't get non-humanoid characters in many of DWJ's stories so what did you think about having so many in this one (Green Greet, Plug-Ugly, etc.)?
I think this was part of what gave this story a younger feel for me but I liked the way that the creatures were revealed through the story to have more and more power. When they were eventually identified as being the guardians, I was really happy that they were going to be revered and respected. I also liked that Aileen remained friends with the cat but it didn't remain her pet after its aim was achieved. I wonder if the same thing happened with the bird and the dragon. The bird seems to have always had an "owner" though.

How about the various romances in the story -- were there any that you did or didn't like?
I have to admit that the Aileen/Ogo romance was a bit hard to accept. At the beginning she calls him ugly and despised and doesn't act like he has any partner potential at all. Of course, I'm really happy that she didn't end up with Ivar. That guy was a tool! The romance between Aunt Beck and Prince Alasdair was totally unexpected but it made me smile, especially after it made a real physical change in her. Finally, we have a weirdly cranky adult with an explanation. I bet Ursula wrote that part though. Diana would have probably just left her cranky.

Did you think of any other DWJ stories while you were reading this one?
I thought a lot about the Magid stories. It might be because I just read them but the way the magic worked and the types of characters (evil mom!) seemed familiar. I wouldn't be surprised if this world was on the loop, way over on the magic side. Rebalancing magic after an evil working is definitely a Magid theme.

What else stood out to you from this story? Are you glad that it was released, even though it was finished by someone else? Do you think that Ursula got it right?


  1. I felt that the pacing was pretty good. I was drawn into the story straightaway, and I never felt bored. I felt the ending was maybe a little bit rushed, but it was actually less frantic than your classic DWJ denouement.

    I really liked the Guardians, they were probably one of my favourite elements of the story. I especially liked how you could tell they would be an important part of the story, since they were powerful, magical creatures, but their true identities only became apparent bit by bit. (Even when we knew that Green Greet was the embodiment of a Guardian, it still took me a while to work out that Pug Ugly was as well. I guess because we didn't meet the other Guardians until very near the end.)

    I really liked the romance between Aileen and Ogo. I suspected right off the bat that they would end up together. Ogo just totally seemed like the sort of maligned character who would grow into himself over the course of the story. I guess I like a story where a character's perception of someone else changes over time as they get to know them in a new way. I also found the romance between Beck and Alisdair quite heartwarming, although it seemed to me the sort of thing that might have come more from Ursula than Diana. I don't really know how I feel about Ivar and Riannan. She didn't feel very fleshed out to me, but she seemed a better fate than Ivar really deserved. I would have liked to see him get some sort of comeuppance for being such brat.

    I agree with you that Chaldea could easily be a part of the Magids loop, although you would have thought that maybe a Magid should have intervened in the situation if it was! I also thought that Aileen reminded me a bit of Charmain from House of Many Ways. They are both pretty strongminded, opinionated girls who don't really realise the full extent of their powers.

    Overall, I really enjoyed the story. It doesn't feel fully like a classic DWJ to me, but I couldn't recognise the seam where Ursula took over. I did find myself thinking toward the end (I can't remember where exactly, but possibly when they were in the balloon or maybe even at the singing competition) that we were definitely into Ursula territory. I think I mostly missed the specific sort of wit and wackyness that Diana always brought to her stories. I did feel that there were some things I would have liked to see more fully developed. I would have liked to get to know Rees and his family better, and Aunt Beck's recovery felt too easy and convenient to me. Overall though, I think Ursula did a great job. I can't imagine having to pick up an unfinished manuscript and just trying to guess where Diana was going with it from the subtle clues that you usually don't see until after a re-read (or a few). The ending was a bit more tied together and happily ever after than I think Diana would have had it, but I am so glad that it was finished and we are all able to have one more trip to one of DWJ's magical worlds.

    And I totally cried reading the Afterword. :(

  2. I'm waiting for the US edition. Ordinarily it would be torment to wait, but honestly, I am not in the world's hugest rush to read the absolutely-last-ever Diana Wynne Jones book. It makes me sad even writing those words!

  3. Even though emotionally conflicted that this is the last DWJ book I felt this did justice to her reputation. And there are still a handful of books I've yet to read!

    In my Wordpress review blog I hint at some of the elements that Diana drew on to create this story, though I didn't go so much into characterisation and relationships: perhaps another time...

  4. I'm so looking forward to this one! Thanks for doing a non-spoilery bit (I'll come back to this post after i've read it)!