Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

Posted by Simcha 7:51 PM, under | 4 comments

A couple of weeks ago I had mentioned that in honor of Diana Wynne Jones I would try to read and review as many of her books as I could get a hold of, and since then I hadn't brought it up again. Lest you think that I forgot about my resolution I want to clarify that I certainly have not. In fact, I had jumped into my pile of Jones books with relish, only occasionally coming up for air. And then I suddenly realized that it has been over a week since I last posted a review and so I forced myself to put my book down and to start reviewing.

I decided to start my reading with one of my favorite of Diana Wynne Jones's books, and the first one of hers that I ever read,
Charmed Life.

When Cat and his older sister Gwendolen are orphaned by the tragic death of their parents in a steamer accident, they are sent to live with their neighbor, Mrs. Sharp, who also happens to be a witch. Gwendolyn is delighted by this turn of events since she now has someone supportive of her interest in magic and who recognizers her great potential. Cat, who has no propensity for magic at all, is happy as long as he can cling to Gwendolen’s side, as she his only remaining family member.

Mrs. Sharp quickly realizes the extent of Gwendolyn’s talent for magic and sends her to lessons with the local wizard. But soon Gwendolyn feels that she has surpassed her current teacher and all the other local witches and so she writes to the Chrestomanci, the most powerful wizard of all, to request that he take her in and train her.

To Cat’s surprise, and dismay, the Chrestomanci actually responds to Gwendolen’s request and he and Gwendelyn are invited to come live with the Chrestomanci and his family. But Gwendolen’s pleasure is short-lived when she fails to receive the recognition and respect she has come to expect and is instead treated as a novice and prohibited from using any magic at all. In retaliation, Gwendolen plots a series of pranks to demonstrate to everyone how powerful she really is. When these pranks fail to elicit the desired response, Gwendolen turns to darker magic for the ultimate revenge against the Chrestomanci and all of his supporters, though it will be poor Cat who will get caught in the middle.

It has been over fifteen years since I had last read
Charmed Life and I have no idea why I waited so long to reread it. I suppose I had assumed that as an adult I probably wouldn’t enjoy this YA book as much as I once had, but I was quickly proven wrong. The story, the characters, the humor and the magic are all just as delightful as I remember them to be.

When I had first read
Charmed Life I was pretty new to fantasy and stories about magic and alternate worlds. But even now, as a seasoned fantasy reader I was still intrigued by the story Jones has woven and all the wonderful elements she has incorporated in it. I particularly like the idea of the Chrestomanci, a powerful enchanter with nine lives, unique in that there are no other versions of him in all the other worlds. And in Jones’s books the Chrestomancis always start off as young, naive boys who have no idea of the magic they are capable of, for one reason or another.

Cat Chant is one such boy. He has always assumed that his sister is the only one in the family capable of magic, and he is satisfied with things being that way. But he doesn’t realize where it is that Gwendolen is getting her powers from and that, thanks to her, he has already died several times in his young life.

While Cat at first seems like a rather simple character, naive and overly-eager to please, he evolves throughout the story, becoming more interesting and complex, as he discovers the truth about himself and his sister, and learns to stand up for himself. Though my favorite character is the Chrestomanci, with his penchant for silk robes and his distant and dreamy behavior which so frustrates Gwendolen. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the Chrestomanci’s interactions with Cat and Gwendolen.

    He [Cat]went to the side door and burst into the kitchen with his hatful of apples, shouting, "I say! Look what I've got, Mrs. Sharp!" Mrs. Sharp was not there. Instead, standing in the middle of the kitchen, was a tall and quite extraordinarily well-dressed man.

    Cat stared at him in some dismay. He was clearly a rich new Town Councillor. Nobody but those kind of people wore trousers with such pearly stripes, or coats of such beautiful velvet, or carried : tall hats as shiny as their boots. The man's hair was dark. It was smooth as his hat. Cat had no doubt that this was Gwendolen's Dark Stranger, come to help her start ruling the world. And he should not have been in the kitchen at all. Visitors were always taken straight to the parlor.

    "Oh, how do you do, sir. Will you come this way, sir?" he gasped.

    The Dark Stranger gave him a wondering look. And well he might, Cat thought, looking around distractedly…

    "Who are you?" said the Dark Stranger. "I have a feeling I should know you. What have you got in your hat?"

    Cat was too busy staring around to attend properly, but he caught the last question. His pleasure returned. "Apples," he said, showing the Stranger. "Lovely sweet ones. I've been scrumping."

    The Stranger looked grave. "Scrumping," he said, "is a form of stealing."

    Cat knew that as well as he did. He thought it was very joyless, even for a Town Councillor, to point it out. "I know. But I bet you did it when you were my age."

    The Stranger coughed slightly and changed the subject. "You haven't said yet who you are."

    "Sorry. Didn't I?" said Cat. "I'm Eric Chant—only they always call me Cat."

    "Then is Gwendolen Chant your sister?" the Stranger asked. He was looking more and more austere and pitying. Cat suspected that he thought Mrs. Sharp's kitchen was a den of vice.

    "That's right. Won't you come this way?" Cat said, hoping to get the Stranger out of it. "It's neater through here."

    "I had a letter from your sister," the Stranger said, standing where he was. "She gave me the impression you had drowned with your parents."

    "You must have made a mistake," Cat said distractedly. "I didn't drown because I was holding on to Gwendolen, and she's a witch. It's cleaner through here."

    "I see," said the Stranger. "I'm called Chrestomanci, by the way."

    "Oh!" said Cat. This was a real crisis. He put his hat of apples down in the middle of the spell, which he very much hoped would ruin it. "Then you've got to come in the parlor at once."

    "Why?" said Chrestomanci, sounding rather bewildered.

    "Because," said Cat, thoroughly exasperated, "you're far too important to stay here."

    "What makes you think I'm important?" Chrestomanci asked, still bewildered.

    Cat was beginning to want to shake him. "You must be. You're wearing important clothes. And Mrs. Sharp said you were. She said Mr. Nostrum would give his eyes just for your three letters."

    "Has Mr. Nostrum given his eyes for my letters?" asked Chrestomanci. "It hardly seems worth it."

    "No. He just gave Gwendolen lessons for them," said Cat.

    "What? For his eyes? How uncomfortable!" said Chrestomanci.

The story is also spiced up with some villainous characters, from Gwendolen herself, to the sinister Nostrum brothers who sell illegal magical ingredients. Mrs. Sharp is a bit of a borderline character, mostly looking out for her own good but also genuinely affectionate towards Cat. Most of the adult characters in this book are actually pretty untrustworthy, with Millie being the only clearly good soul among them. But such relationships between adults and children are common in Jones’s books.

I was really glad to find that I enjoyed
Charmed Life just as much now as I did the first time, and I even found new nuances to the story which I had not noticed when I was younger. I now can’t wait for my children to be old enough for me to share this book with them.


Did you hear about Diana Wynne Jones Week? I believe it is being hosted by Jenny at Jenny's Books. I am not sure when it is, but I have a feeling it might be this week (or next?), so check it out!

It's not until the first week of August, but I like seeing people read DWJ all the time! :p

Charmed Life was something like the third Diana Wynne Jones book I read when I first discovered her, and it took me ages to realize that elegant, calm Chrestomanci was Christopher from Lives of Christopher Chant. (And then I felt silly for not noticing sooner.) But I love Janet - I loved the scenes where she didn't know her history because she came from the wrong world!

Aarti: Yes, I did see that Jenny is having a Diana Wynne Jones week, which I think is great. She is an author that I think everyone should try, particularly while she is still with us.

Jenny: Well I just read Conrad's Fate I enjoyed seeing Christopher in the in-between stage, on the way to becoming the Christomanci. I also really like Jane and I had to force myself to leave her out of the review so that I don't give too much away. Though I do wish there was more about her and what happens to her after the story ends. But that's a feeling I have with many of Jones's books.

Great review! I have to admit that I still haven't read any of her books, although I've been planning to!

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