Return to the Isle of the Lost: A Descendants Novel by Melissa de la Cruz
Disney Hyperion Publishing, May 2016
Last year, Melissa de la Cruz introduced us to an interesting, darker twist on the typical Disney tale in Isle of the Lost. In the Disney fairytale realm of Auradon, all the villains, along with their children, have been captured and imprisoned on the deteriorating, isolated Isle of the Lost. The first book introduced a variety of villain children, but focused on four in particular: Mal, the daughter of Maleficent; Jay, the son of Jafar; Evie, the daughter of Evil Queen; and Carlos, the son of Cruella de Vil. At the end of the book, the four of them were invited by Prince Ben, soon to become king of Auradon, to attend boarding school in Auradon. Isle of the Lost was quickly followed by the live action, made-for-television movie musical, Descendants, in which Mal and her villain compatriots chose to defend Auradon from an attack by Maleficent, who had regained her magic and escaped. Mal defeated Maleficent, transforming her into a harmless lizard.
Return to the Isle of the Lost directly follows the events of the movie. Mal, Jay, Evie, and Carlos are adjusting to, and mostly enjoying, life in Auradon when they receive mysterious messages that they must return home. When they do return, they make the disturbing discovery that their parents have disappeared without a trace, in an attempt to escape the island through secret, underground passages. Mal, Jay, Evie, and Carlos must find and travel the passageways to keep their parents from tunneling through to Auradon, but to do so, they each must face a challenge left behind by their parents. A note for English teachers: the meaning of the term “anti-hero” is hammered home pretty thoroughly.
In the meantime, Merlin has approached King Ben with a request to use magic, which has been forbidden, in order to deal with a threat to Camelot; the citizens there report attacks by a purple dragon. Ben’s immediate thought is that Maleficent is the cause of the trouble, but since she is still a lizard, that seems unlikely. If you’ve been watching animated Disney movies for most of your life, you probably can figure out who the purple dragon really is in about thirty seconds, but it was a complete mystery to my 8 year old daughter.
I found Return to the Isle of the Lost to be a disappointing follow-up to the first book and the movie. In those, we got to see some very complex characters dealing with conflicts central to their identity. The villain kids in Isle of the Lost are not nice kids. They steal, lie, destroy property, treat other people badly, and can often be shallow. Despite that, you can see these are kids who desperately want their parents’ approval, and there is something there that makes you want to root for them. In Return to the Isle of the Lost, that’s missing. Their parents are absent, so we don’t get to see that conflict, and the kids have pretty much settled on being “good”, although with a preference for painting gloomy castles instead of peaceful sunsets. Very little is done to further character development either; It’s just not as interesting. To be fair, de la Cruz is dealing with a huge cast of characters, and it would be impossible to do justice to all of them, but it seemed like even the main characters got short shrift.
While Isle of the Lost could appeal to those who like their fairy tales dark and twisted, I don’t think Return to the Isle of the Lost will satisfy. However, for your Disney-loving 8 year old who is tired of the same old princesses, I can speak from experience; the book will be a tremendous hit. Recommended for ages 8+.
Reviewed by Kirsten Kowalewski