The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones
Beech Tree Books (William Morrow & Co.), 1999 (Originally Macmillan, 1980)
March 18th, 2014
This book is set in the same world as Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant, except instead of taking place in a magical version of England, it’s in a magical version of Italy. Caprona, where the action takes place, is known for the quality of the magic spells it produces and sells. The best spells from Caprona come from two eminent families, Casa Montana and Casa Petrocchi: the two houses are equally talented at magic and equally full of antipathy towards one another: they’ve been feuding for two hundred years. The story centers mostly on Tonino, the youngest Montana boy, who is slow at learning spells/doesn’t think of himself as very magically talented, though he does effortlessly communicate with cats. He’s not too fond of school, either, though he does love to read: amusingly, he is a fan of “fantasy,” which, in a magical world, consists of books where the protagonists have “wild adventures with no magic to help or hinder them” (28).
Meanwhile, all is not well in Caprona: the Old Bridge, which is protected partly by magic, has been damaged by winter floods, and the Duke of Caprona (in this world, Italy isn’t unified) fears that the neighboring areas of Florence, Pisa, and Siena, which have united against Caprona, are paying an enchanter to harm the town. The Montanas and Petrocchis have to work together to mend the bridge, and the Duke also tasks them with finding the true words to the town’s anthem, the Angel of Caprona, which is said to have been delivered by a divine messenger to save the town from an enemy in a troubled time in its past, and should therefore help the situation now, too.
In the midst of all this, Tonino gets an unexpected package, which turns out to be a book, which he reads cover to cover as soon as he has the chance. (He keeps getting interrupted just when he’s about to start, and there’s a great moment when he starts “to think he would die of book-frustration,” which made me giggle. (81)) But the day he finishes the book, he goes missing, and it becomes clear that the book has something to do with his disappearance. His family thinks the Petrocchis have kidnapped him, but at the same time, Angelica, the youngest Petrocchi daughter, has gone missing as well. There’s a great magical fight between the two families, complete with a duel between Tonino’s father and Angelica’s father; meanwhile, elsewhere, Angelica and Tonino find themselves trapped together, and have to get past their distrust of one another and use their wits and their magic (though Angelica has trouble with spells, too—hers always turn out differently than she intended them to) to escape, with some help from sources both expected and not.
I felt like this book got off to a slow start, particularly because it felt like there wasn’t enough magic in the beginning, but once the plot picked up I was totally delighted by it. I like Tonino lots, and his siblings and cousins and aunts, and their bustling household. The magic in this book centers around spells that are sung—the words and the tune both have to be right—and I loved how vivid the description of the fight between the two families was, with the family members of each house making music together to make things rain from the sky, or to protect themselves from the other family’s spells.