Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume II
Eos (HarperCollins), 2007 (originally 2001)
March 22nd, 2014
Witch Week was published in 1982 and is therefore the third, in publication order, of the Chrestomanci books, but it’s the fourth one presented in the two volume set of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, and that set determined my reading order of the books. Actually, you could read Witch Week on its own, but it worked for me as the fourth book: Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant both feature Christopher Chant and Chrestomanci Castle; The Magicians of Caprona is set in the same world but in Italy, and Christopher Chant (as Chrestomanci) appears, but only briefly; Witch Week is set in a different world, but Christopher Chant/Chrestomanci appears again, more solidly and satisfyingly.
So: the story: it’s set in a world very much like ours in the early ’80s, except that witches exist, and witchcraft is illegal: witches are burned at the stake. The book’s action takes place at and around Larwood House, an English “boarding school run by the government for witch-orphans and children with other problems” (280). At the start of the book, one of the teachers discovers an anonymous note saying that someone in class 6B is a witch: as the story proceeds and magic starts happening, it becomes apparent that 6B may actually have more than one witch: but who?
One of the strengths of this book, for me, was how well it works both as a boarding-school story and as a story about magic: things both ordinary and magical are wonderfully described. There’s a wide cast of characters, a number of whose perspectives we get to see through excerpts of the journal entries they have to write for school, and the descriptions of bullying, social structures/class hierarchies (e.g. how the less popular kids take it out on the even more unpopular kids), and the everyday difficulties of school life, from minor injustices to PE class, are captured well. The descriptions of PE class are especially great, from one character’s inability to climb the rope (“She had been born without the proper muscles or something”) to a great scene about the boys’ PE class/running:
They were divided into little groups of laboring legs. The quick group of legs in front, with muscles, belonged to Simon Silverson and his friends, and to Brian Wentworth. […] The group of legs behind these were paler and moved without enthusiasm. These belonged to Dan Smith and his friends. All of them could have run at least as fast as Simon Silverson, but they were saving themselves for better things. […] Behind these again labored an assorted group of legs: mauve legs, fat legs, bright white legs, legs with no muscles at all, and the great brown legs of Nirupam Singh, which seemed too heavy for the rest of Nirupam’s skinny body to lift. Everyone in this group was too breathless to talk. Their faces wore assorted expressions of woe. (298)
And oh, the magic! There’s magic with birds streaming into a classroom, and magic with all the shoes in the school ending up in the great hall overnight, and magic where everything a student says comes true (which leads to some particularly hilarious/distressing moments).
But amidst all the humor, there’s worry and danger, too: will an inquisitor come to the school, and will someone be arrested and killed? That, not surprisingly, is where the enchanter Chrestomanci, summoned from his own world to this one, comes in. He’s vague and elegant and hilarious and stern and really just perfect, as he was in Charmed Life, and of course he manages to help the protagonists figure out how to put things right.