Charmed Life: Rich in detail and cleverness

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci 1. Charmed LifeCharmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, Charmed Life is possibly her most famous, and her most read. It is the first published of her Chrestomanci novels, and it stars many of her most famous characters with her requisite twisting plot and quirky sense of humour. Set in a parallel world ripe with magic, wizards and magical creatures, DWJ’s Chrestomanci quartet were clearly inspirational to J.K. Rowling in her creation of Hogwarts and her wizarding world — a lot of comparisons can be made between the two. Ultimately Harry Potter is the deeper and more intricate series, but DWJ’s novels are stand-alone, can be read out of order, and are rich in detail and cleverness.

Gwendolyn Chant is an extraordinarily gifted witch, despite the fact that her little brother Cat has no magical ability at all. After their parents’ deaths, the two orphans are taken in by Mrs Sharp amongst a neighbourhood of magical folk — but Gwendolyn has bigger plans for herself that concern nothing less than the conquering of the world. When the two of them are taken to Chrestomanci Castle, Gwendolyn is delighted. Chrestomanci is a powerful enchanter that she feels sure will teach and guide her on her way to world domination.

But things are not quite as she expected. Chrestomanci has no desire whatsoever to make this young witch even more powerful before she gains a little self-control. With the added restrictions of their tutor Mr Saunders and Chrestomanci’s family watching her every move, Gwendolyn has had quite enough — she begins to wage war on Chrestomanci.

From there things only begin to get uglier, as Chrestomanci gets more and more stubborn and Gwendolyn becomes more and more frustrated. Stuck in the middle is Cat, desperately loyal to his sister but just as eager to fit in with his new family. Gwendolyn’s plans are even deeper than expected, with secret trips to dodgy black marketeers and a hidden source of magic that even Cat is unaware of…

Funny, heartfelt, realistic, imaginative and sometimes even a little grotesque, Charmed Life is a work of true children’s literature. The characters are vivid, the storyline intriguing, and the morals sincere without being too heavy-handed. Some components are a little complicated: Diana Wynne Jones sprinkles hints and clues throughout the book and some of these are hard to remember — but all of that simply justifies a second reading to pick up the things you missed!

Chrestomanci himself is a gem. Think for a moment of all the famous wizards in literature. You’re almost certainly thinking: Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore (and if you’re rather well-read, Dallben, Merriman Lyon and Cadellin) What do all these wizards have in common? They’re old, wizened, sage-like and immensely wise. Chrestomanci turns this tired stereotype around on its head — he’s handsome, well-dressed, reasonably young and quite infuriating at times! Plus, if you’ve already read The Lives of Christopher Chant, the name of Chrestomanci’s wife may make you smile…

In typical DWJ fashion, the story does not end on a perfectly upbeat note; in fact it’s rather sad, with only a trembling sort of hopefulness in our main character that will induce readers to seek out other Chrestomanci books: Witch Week, The Magicians of Caprona, The Lives of Christopher Chant and Mixed Magics, an anthology of short stories.

Chrestomanci — Ages 9-12. (1977-2006) Omnibus editions are available. Mixed Magics contains four short stories set in the Chrestomanci world. Publisher: In this multiple parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds, only an enchanter with nine lives is powerful enough to control the rampant misuse of magic — and to hold the title Chrestomanci… The Chants are a family strong in magic, but neither Christopher Chant nor Cat Chant can work even the simplest of spells. Who could have dreamed that both Christopher and Cat were born with nine lives — or that they could lose them so quickly?

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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