The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones


Before I read The Islands of Chaldea, I read Aishwarya Subramanian’s review* of the novel, and I heard Ursula Jones, who completed the novel following the death of her sister Diana Wynne Jones, speak at a conference. Thus I knew going in both that this was not peak DWJ, and that I liked Ursula as a story-teller and really wanted her to pull it off.

The former was one of the reasons I wanted to cover Islands of Chaldea relatively early in my reading of the DWJ canon. Chaldea is reminiscent of a stripped-down Power of Three, with a big cast that’s not that thoroughly used. I‘d prefer for my final ‘first time reading this book’ DWJ experience to be a strong one–a good, typical example of the author’s work, rather than this—her final outing. If I were reading chronologically, my last DWJ would be a book that, while still good, cannot help but remind me of the author’s death. I can’t unknow that bibliographic fact. What’s perhaps worse is the way the weakness of the flesh perhaps forces an unwitting testament in the form of the weaknesses of the text. Just before Chaldea, I read DWJ’s immediately antecedent book, Enchanted Glass. It also showed some strain. More, I felt, than Chaldea did, actually.

A year or two ago, I watched a BBC documentary about continuations of Dickens’ unfinished novel, Edwin Drood. The documentary was tied in with the BBC’s continuation!miniseries, and short on discussions of the many, many, many previous attempts to complete the book (or the long, deep history of meta-musings on where Dickens might have been going with this). Instead, it largely consisted of people who’d never heard of fanfiction ‘have I the right?!!?’ing somewhere on a beach (they’d moved on to discussing Jane Austen’s unfinished beach-novel Sanditon) at the thought of touching the work of the artiste!!

People Who Don’t Get Fanfic’s opinions about completing, adapting and continuing literary works are largely useless. Either you understand (with or without a theoretical apparatus) that the author is dead and that the translator has a task, and that you can do:

  1. interesting (pleasurable and competent, or bold and exploratory), or
  2. stupid and exclusively commercial, or
  3. earnest and wrong-headed

things with a continuation/adaptation, and that Dickens was not an unfaltering genius bathed in gold dust who shat great ideas (well he did, but only like, 50% of the time, and the rest is The Chimes), or you don’t. And if you don’t, I have no time for your Mathew Arnold bullshit. It is boring to even make the case about why you are obviously wrong.

Long story short, I am down with continuations. I just wish publishers didn’t value the mystique of the author and the single vision of the text to the extent that they apparently believe the public can only be interested in traditional finished novels that present themselves like ‘just another DWJ book, but with an additional name on the cover for some reason.’

The worst-case adaptation scenario is probably that of the Sayers estate. Convinced no one would want to read the unaltered, half-finished final Wimsey book Thrones, Dominations, they had Jill Paton Walsh render up a substantially-edited (to its detriment) version of the first half of the novel (i.e. the half that Sayers had finished and abandoned), and wed it to a technically poor (and ideologically gross) continuation of her own. This really misreads the Sayers fanbase. I think they’d been quite happy (perhaps happier) just to have the notes and fragments of Sayers’ work, or to have the option of buying an affordable ‘scholars’ version’–or at least to get an appendix with that information in with the continuation as released.

Maybe an unfinished book would have put off general-interest mystery readers, but I’d argue that the estate has already been mismanaged to the extent that, while Sayers’ contemporary Agatha Christie is phenomenally popular, a good 90% of casual browsers don’t know what the fuck a Wimsey is. Jim from Milton Keynes probably isn’t going to buy Thrones, Dominations and be pissed it’s not a straight-up, ready-made mystery novel, because JimyJimJimJim probably isn’t going to ever pick it up. So stop pandering to him and ruining it for the rest of us.

The Chaldea case is nothing like that bad, but ffs, why do publishers think I’m some precious ten-year old who doesn’t know how book-sausage gets made? You don’t need to conceal what’s changed, where the new writer’s taken over. I’d appreciate the information. It would interest me. It wouldn’t put me off. And not just because I’m a scholar–though I’d argue the audience for Sayers, and to some extent DWJ, is already pretty heavily comprised of scholars and like-minded laypeople. It’s like the question of when and what to tell our partners about  our exes. We can debate how we want to convey this information, but I don’t think there’s much point in elaborately pretending you’ve never loved another, etc. What IS it with the ‘resurrection of the body’ preoccupation with the wholeness of the orphaned text?

So: I don’t have beef with continuations. I resent publishing companies’ twee insistence that I will want to read some Potemkin village mock-up of the ‘whole’ story, and can’t handle the orphaned Bakhtinian text.

I am interested in where the switch-over between authors happens (Ursula’s afterword and DWJ’s composition style indicate that it was a pretty clean switch, and that Ursula had neither an outline nor notes to guide her), but emphatically not in that ‘where were we abandoned by the hand of the perfect master and left with some impostor?!’ kind of way so characteristic of those bloody Edwin Drood documentary opiners and their ilk.

I have two options for where I think this clean break might have been:

  1. pg. 209ish, the hot air balloon lifting off, or
  2. circa pg. 230, with the heroes getting shoved into the captive prince’s rooms.

On page 230, we get this sentence:

“It must by then have been mid-morning and the sun blazed in through a dozen tall windows.”

That’s– the wrong rhythm? We at least need a comma after ‘morning’. The whole sentence feels not-quite-right. Up until that point I’d had a creeping sensation of ‘maybe the writer’s changed?’, but right there it crystallized into conviction.

It’s difficult judgment call, in that there isn’t a sharp quality drop. I just have a growing perception of untidiness. That’s either DWJ’s illness/the Enchanted Glass effect, or it shows a less trained (at least in this form) storyteller at work. Ursula’s not bad, in the portion I’m fairly sure is hers. She’s inventive. But she’s not honed. She reads more like a writer earlier in her career.

Conversely, even though I read Subramanian’s review beforehand, and thus anticipated the book’s final passage with the Lone Cat (which, as Subramanian points out, must be Ursula’s), I still found it unexpectedly moving. In a way, this ending is too ‘good’ for DWJ. Even if Ursula’s ending is more thinly written than the start of the book (not poor, but rough), it’s also too conventionally satisfying, in the way DWJ’s endings never are.  (Some people would say DWJ’s endings are post-modern difficult brilliance that refuses conclusion etc. etc.–I just think DWJ is great at almost everything and can’t write an ending to save her life.)

I feel the copy editing also could have used DWJ’s precision. There’s a ‘maybe’ early on, when someone means ‘may be’, for example. ‘That’s as maybe’. That feels like an editorial flub, and the sort of mistake that people familiar with this kind of writing don’t make so much? ‘I should write and tell them’, I thought. Then I thought about working in a modern publishing house (which I’ve done, for my sins), and I lol’d at the idea that anyone might care/be able or willing to fix that niggle.

Lately the Strange Horizons book club conversations (I’m thinking of Tigerman and Fire in the Unnamable Country, though to a small extent Ombria in Shadow also touched on this) have been circling the question of what it means to talk about the real world via semi-referential ‘representative’ countries. What are the ethics and effects of that decision? Those discussions made me wonder what Islands of Chaldea gains from thinly fictionalizing England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It could easily discuss these places, or timeless fantasy versions thereof, using their real names, but it chooses not to. Did DWJ simply want to dodge the research-burden associated with historical fiction? I don’t even know, really, that it would have been incumbent on her to do and convey a lot of research. People do vague ancient fantasy British Isles all the time (his name? MERLIN!!).

What’s the upshot of whatever Chaldea has to say about these places? Are they just a setting for these characters? The novel and its world-building are at their vaguest when they come to faux-England. Granted, that’s the only section Ursula almost must have written. But if Englishness is here de facto portrayed as an unmarked ‘normal’ state, that’s invoking a familiar and dangerous imperial logic. I just don’t know what the book wants to say about England/Englishness.

In this world, it feels like nothing outside these islands (and the lost Atlantis) exists. (Which could itself say dubious things about the insularity and all-Whiteness of British fantastic imagination.) Then the ending sort of back-justifies unification between England and Scotland, and maybe all four of these ‘islands’. Is this a depiction of the kingdoms as, ideally, separate but equal, and somehow unified, or a retroactive justification/alt origin story for a history of English invasions?

Subramanian wondered whether the Mediterranean element in faux-Wales complicated this schema, and whether it might allude to Roman Britain. That didn’t bother me, actually? I sort of thought that was a nod to French celts and Brittany, and/or the intermarriage that randomly happened with Italy and Wales, which my Welsh flatmate Robin and the works of RTD assure me is important. Yet I’m tempted to just say ‘it’s Brittany.’

The novel leaves me with a lot of questions. What’s with lost Atlantis—what is that there for? Why does our hero’s aunt and traveling companion, the Wise Woman Beck, hate faux!Ireland? Etc., etc. Like Enchanted Glass, Chaldea really isn’t a bad book, but it’s not quite on par with the bulk of the DWJ oeuvre, and there’s much about it that’s frustrating.

* If you need a plot outline of Chaldea, I suggest flicking over to this review and popping back. I mostly want to talk about the novel in terms of other things (how it was constructed and published, continuations of deceased authors’ work), to an audience that’s either read the novel in question or is interested in said other things rather than Islands of Chaldea per se.


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