Witch Week: Each character is a gem

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Diana Wynne Jones Witch Week ChrestomanciWitch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

So says the note that Mr Crossley finds hidden between the exercise books in class 2Y. In any other world, this would be seen as a harmless joke, but at Larwood House for witch orphans, in a world run by Inquisitors and where witch-burnings still take place, such things are taken deadly seriously. Who is the witch? Chubby Nan Pilgrim, named after the most famous Arch-Witch? Sullen Charles Morgan, who holds a sympathetic view toward witches? Or weird Brian Wentworth, who behaviour gets stranger by the day?

Then the anonymous witch starts having some fun — a flock of exotic birds in music class, a removal of all the shoes in the school. The hunt is on among students and teachers to find the culprit, with the threat of the merciless Inquisitors visiting the school at the back of all their minds. But as the mystery deepens, several of the students seem to find that they themselves have magical powers, and that any one of them could be arrested for witchcraft and burnt at the stake. They’ll need some expert help…

Witch Week is part of the Chrestomanci quartet, though unlike Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant, Chrestomanci is not a main character, and in fact does not appear until over halfway through the book. In this way, it is more like The Magicians of Caprona, where Chrestomanci appears as a powerful, helpful figure to sort out the problem at hand (with a little help from the children, of course).

Diana Wynne Jones is almost too good at creating the atmosphere and feeling of boarding school for these young people, where even the misfits are at odds with each other rather than banding together to oppose the Theresas and Simons of the school. Each student is a little gem of character study, whether it be the perfect Theresa and her ‘new crazes’ (in this case, it’s knitting), Charles and the complicated code he makes in order to demonstrate how much he hates the school, or Brian’s complete and utter selfishness.

Likewise, are Wynne Jones’s humorous moments of vivid human life — such as Theresa’s friends escorting her to detention, but abruptly abandoning her when the teacher invites them to join her, or Nan wishing she was dead, then realising that with the Inquisitors coming she may very well end up dead… and immediately realising that she doesn’t want to be dead. Make no mistake, these students are thoroughly miserable, and Larwood House is a long way from Hogwarts.

And I mention Hogwarts, since Diana Wynne Jones’s novels are undoubtedly the most influential books in the creation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, especially Witch Week in its use of a boarding school with magical pupils. If you consider yourself a loyal follower of Harry Potter, then this book should be read — Rowling’s books have more intricate mysteries, but Wynne Jones is right up there with Rowling in terms of clever twists — an example here, is how a foolish spell ends up being vital in the saving of the world. Furthermore, Rowling tends to be more sentimental, and Wynne Jones has not an ounce of this in her books — they are (despite the magical workings) realistic to the core, and written in Wynne Jones’s droll, almost sarcastic narrative.

So not every fan of Harry Potter might necessarily enjoy these books, but for those trying to extend their reading, look into the literary history of Potter, are fans of Diana Wynne Jones, or just want a funny, sinister, and clever read, look no further than Witch Week. However, I do suggest reading either Charmed Life or The Lives of Christopher Chant beforehand — it’ll give you a clearer idea of who Chrestomanci is and what he does.

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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