The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1, by Diana Wynne Jones
Eos (HarperCollins), 2007 (originally 2001)
March 11th, 2014
This volume contains two separate books, Charmed Life, which I read multiple times as a kid, and The Lives of Christopher Chant, which I read for the first time about six years ago. Last month, I was at an amazing used book sale in my neighborhood and found a copy of another book in the same series, which prompted me to re-read these.
Both Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant are set in the world “next door to us,” where “magic is as common as music is with us.” Charmed Life is the story of Eric (Cat) Chant and his older sister Gwendolen, who are orphaned when their parents drown. Cat can’t do magic at all; Gwendolen is a witch who wants to rule the world. Eventually the two are sent to live at Chrestomanci Castle—Chrestomanci, a nine-lived enchanter who’s in charge of making sure magic isn’t misused, is a cousin of their parents, and has other reasons besides for wanting Cat and Gwendolen nearby. The book is a pleasing mix of family/schoolroom drama and magical excitement/intrigue, with Gwendolen clashing with Chrestomanci’s kids, Julia and Roger, and pushing Cat around, and getting involved in a very grown-up plot to open up the gates to other worlds, and eventually running off to another world, which then drags Janet, her double in the next world over, to Chrestomanci Castle to take her place. I love the humor of passages like this:
“Someone’s been opening my letters,” said Gwendolen. “And I don’t care who it is, but I’m not having it! Do you hear?”
Cat gasped at the way she spoke. Chrestomanci seemed perplexed. “How are you not having it?” he said.
“I won’t put up with it!” Gwendolen shouted at him. “In future, my letters are going to come to me closed!”
“You mean you want me to steam them open and stick them down afterward?” Chrestomanci asked doubtfully. “It’s more trouble, but I’ll do that if it makes you happier.” (85-86)
There are lots of other great bits, too: the kids playing toy soldiers and making the soldiers move by magic, and Janet failing miserably at history lessons because she’s from a different world where history went differently, and a talking dragon who’s very proud of himself, and a very exciting magical battle where Cat finally comes into his own.
The Lives of Christopher Chant takes place more than twenty-five years earlier, and is about the childhood of the man who has grown up to become Chrestomanci in Charmed Life. Christopher Chant lives in London with his parents, whose relationship with each other is so strained they only speak through the servants. Christopher has dreams, at night, of places he thinks of as the Anywheres—when he tells his uncle Ralph about these dreams, his uncle knows that the boy is able to travel to other worlds, and has him meet up with Tacroy, another spirit-traveller. Without fully realizing or examining what he’s doing, Christopher helps Tacroy and his uncle smuggle dragons’ blood and other dangerous magical things back from other worlds. There are a number of excellent subplots, including one with a child-Goddess in a temple full of cats, another with Christopher being sent to school, and another with Christopher finally learning magic, including a great scene where he accidentally levitates everything in an entire house. And then there are those lives of the title: Christopher has nine of them, and is eventually sent to Chrestomanci Castle because he will be the next Chrestomanci someday. When the current Chrestomanci is temporarily out of commission, Christopher ends up taking charge, and realizing just how well suited to being Chrestomanci he is.
One of the great things about both books is the way that, in both, the young protagonists learn about themselves and about other people, and about things like trustworthiness and deceit, in ways that feel gradual and true to growing up, interesting rather than preachy.