Because I’m still in Diana Wynne Jones mode, today’s Old Favorite will be the fantasy book that made me realize that she was truly a fantasy genius: Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones.
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Cat and his sister Gwendolen have ended up living with old Mrs. Sharp after the death of their parents in a ferryboat accident (Cat and Gwendolen were also in the accident, but managed to survive.) Mrs. Sharp is kind, but she’s kind of…well…she’s a witch. And a weak witch at that. Although Cat is reasonably content to live with her, Gwendolen is sure she is destined for Greater Things. The thing is, Gwendolen is a witch too, and the magic lessons she’s taking from all the neighborhood witches, necromancers and warlocks just aren’t cutting it for her. They’re also too expensive for Mrs. Sharp. So Gwendolen takes matters into her Own Hands, and writes a letter.
The letter is to Chrestomanci, the personage responsible for the control of all magic in their world. Chrestomanci, it seems, somehow knew their parents, and Gwendolen is determined that he will meet her, be overcome by her Magical Gift, her beauty and intelligence and Desperate Situation, and take her away to live in a magic castle, where she will learn to be the greatest witch in the world, all the while being waited on hand and foot.
Chrestomanci comes, and he does take both children away to live in Chrestomanci Castle. The thing is, the castle seems to be rather…ordinary. Their rooms aren’t grand and filled with velvet curtains, they’re normal, smallish bedrooms. Chrestomanci is certainly a very stylish dresser, but he’s kind of vague and disorganized. His wife Milly is nice, but plain and rather plump. Roger and Julia, their children, are placid and normal and ordinary. There is a huge staff in the castle, but all the children are expected to help with chores, keep up with lessons and clean their rooms. Gwendolyn is Outraged.
Gwendolen and Cat are told they can’t use magic until they learn how it works, and they’re put with Roger and Julia in the castle classroom with a magic tutor. Cat is horrible at magic (he simply can’t do it, even if he tries, and he doesn’t understand why everyone seems to think he has any magical ability at all) but he actually rather likes the castle and the family and thinks he could be happy. If Gwendolen will let him. But Gwendolen is absolutely Not Happy, as everyone in the castle soon learns, to their (well concealed) dismay. There is absolutely nothing about life at Chrestomanci Castle that she will accept. With Cat’s reluctant assistance (Gwendolen rather bullies her little brother) she tests all the boundaries she’s been given to the ultimate limits.
When the testing goes too far, and Gwendolen is stripped of her magic, Cat is suddenly the one with a problem. What will he do? What can he do? Cat is suddenly making decisions and keeping secrets for the first time in his life, and it’s more difficult than he could have ever imagined.
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It’s difficult to describe Charmed Life without giving too much away. Everything you think is perfectly obvious is anything but, and things you think you know from the start aren’t true. Cat’s relationship with his sister is one thing from his point of view, and something very different from hers. To tell too much would ruin the surprise as it unfolds for both the reader and for Cat. (Poor Cat is rather in the dark at first, it’s not until about a third of the way through that he opens his eyes and starts actually looking at the world around him.)
I do love this book. I love it so much that I re-read it every couple of years, and I was so excited when one of the AfterSchool BookClubs chose it as our read aloud a couple years ago. Gwendolen is so Dramatic, and Cat is so quiet. Chrestomanci is flamboyant and humble and wears gorgeous clothes. (They’re there, in detail. Mostly dressing gowns, since he gets called out of his bed for magical emergencies at all hours.) The rest of the family and staff range from cozy to colorful in their own ways, from Roger and Janet to the lady with the purple mittens to Euphemia, the unfortunately-named maid.
First published in 1977, Charmed Life was the first published book to feature Chrestomanci, who went on to appear in several other novels by Diana Wynne Jones. His story of growing up to become Chrestomanci is told in The Lives of Christopher Chant. Christopher and Milly appear together, slightly older, in He appears in Conrad’s Fate. Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona (although both books are told by two different sets of children.) Cat appears with the older Chrestomanci in The Pinhoe Egg and in stories in the short story collection Mixed Magics.
So, if you like your characters with character, your magic muddled up with a little real life confusion, and your adventure with a sideways twist you didn’t see coming, you’ll love Charmed Life. We also have it on audio CD, and it’s just as much fun to listen to as it is to read. And if you walk around saying “bother, bother, bother,” at annoyances for several weeks, don’t blame me!