Charmed Life (Chrestomanci Series #1) by Diana Wynne Jones, 263 pp, RL 5
Born in England in 1934, Diana Wynne Jones has written over sixty books and is one of the most distinguished, awarded writers in the field of fantasy - in the UK, anyway. Her writing career spanned five decades before she died in 2011. She has influenced the likes of Neil Gaiman (they have dedicated books to each other) and, of course, the brilliant Japanese writer and director, Hayao Miyazaki. In America she is best known as the author of the book that Miyazaki turned into an animated movie, Howl's Moving Castle, nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2005, on the heels of a Best Animated Feature win in 2002 with Spirited Away. Published in 1977, Charmed Life, the first book in the Chrestomanci Series is currently available only as a two-in-one book with book two, The Lives of Christopher Chant and retitled The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume One. Volume Two includes The Magicians of Caprona and Witch Week and Volume Three consists of Conrad's Fate and the Pinhoe Egg. While I have read them all in this order over the last ten years, I just learned that it is best to read Conrad's Fate afterVolume 1 and Pinhoe Egg last. Mixed Magics is a collection of short stories from the world of Chrestomanci published between 1982 and 2000. So, if you are new to the series, take that into consideration.
Much like Patricia Wrede, who transports readers to a magical Frontier America in the first book in her trilogy, Thirteenth Child, Diana Wynne Jones creates a complete, inhabitable world(s) effortlessly, whether it is set in the present or the past. Readers will feel immediately transported - as though you can almost smell the magic, which, in the world of Diana Wynne Jones leaves a distinct, potent smell after a spell has been cast. In this particular instance, Diana Wynne Jones has invented a world in which there are multiple parallel universes. a number of which have been visited. Those which are "best known have been divided into sets, called series, according to the events in History which were the same in them." So, all twelve worlds in a series may have the American Revolutionary war as part of their past, but in each world the outcome of the war will be different. Thus, in one world the Americans won their independence, in another they lost, in another they won but were colonized by the French and so on. And, it was "very uncommon for a people not to have at least one exact double in a world of the same series - usually people had a whole string of doubles." The titular word Chrestomanci refers to a very unique and powerful enchanter who is born with nine lives. Chrestomancis are "very important and very rare. They only happens when, for one reason or another, there are no counterparts of them living in any other world. Then the lives that would have been spread out over a whole set of worlds get concentrated in one person. And so do all the talents those eight other people might have had." It is the job of the Chrestomanci to preside over all other worlds and the magic practiced within them and "control all these magic-users" so that ordinary people do not "have a horrible time and end up as slaves." To this end, the "government appoints the very strongest enchanter there is to make sure that no one misuses magic." Although this may seem to be a lengthy and complicated description, this information is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the novel as young Cat Chant discovers who he is.
Gwendolyn and Eric, nicknamed Cat, Chant are very young they and their parents are enjoying a Sunday afternoon on a very crowded, very old steamer that sinks. They survive, but their parents do not. Taken in by Mrs Sharp, a certified (but not accredited) witch, their lives are as good as can be expected. Gwendolyn proves to be a very talented witch and progresses rapidly in her lessons, paid for by family heirlooms and three letters with the Chrestomanci's signature on them - useful for casting spells. Gwendolyn, however, has a quick temper and plans of her own and has no problem using Cat and those around her to get what she wants. Soon, a letter has been sent to Chrestomanci and they children are taken to his estate where Gwendolyn thinks she will live a luxurious life and progress in her magical education. While she finds Chrestomanci's estate to be sprawling and well appointed, she is relegated to the school room for lessons with his very plain children Roger and Julia. And, she is not taught or allowed to use magic. This enrages her so completely that she begins to plot again. All the while, no matter what horrible thing she does, Cat stands by her, defends her and aides her without asking a single question. His unyielding loyalty to his sister is by turns frustrating and incomprehensible but, from the moment he flung his arms around her neck as the steamer sank beside them (witches float and, knowing this, Cat knew she could save him) he seems to be at her beck and call.
As the story unfolds and Gwendolyn's magical attempts to get a rise out of Chrestomanci and her tutor, Mr Saunders, grow more and more outrageous, bits and pieces of Cat's personality and importance are revealed as are the severity of Gwendolyn's actions. When she performs an act of magic that sends her to another world, a very difficult feat, her double, Janet, is pulled into Cat's world and Cat struggles to keep her real identity a secret, protecting Gwendolyn to the end. There is much more to the story, including the regal, distant, well dressed character of Chrestomanci, who's name is Christopher Chant, and the rest of his family and staff as well as a spectacularly stages magical showdown at the end of the book. All of the characters, from the kindhearted Millie, Chrestomanci's wife, to Roger, Julia and the housekeeper, Mrs Bessamer, to the wicked and self-interested Mr Nostrum and Mr Baslam are intriguing and often funny. The practice of magic and the place it plays in the world of Chrestomanci is fascinating also.
The second book in the series, The Lives of Christopher Chant, tells the story of how Chrestomanci discovered that he had nine lives and is equally, if not more interesting than Cat's story.
Howl's Moving Castle Trilogy
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Published in 1996 and revised in 2006, this very funny, faux travel guide that takes the reader through all the common tropes found in fantasy writing.
A few more wonderful books from Diana Wynne Jones