Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy/ YA
Publication Date: May 2009 (first edition: 1977)
Paperback: 288 pages
Stand alone or series: First book in the Chrestomanci series (7 books) but can be read as stand alone.
Every saga has a beginning. Every journey has a first step…And so it is with the magical “Worlds of Chrestomanci” which English fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones began so many years ago with her own episode one–Charmed Life.
Winner of the Guardian Award for Children’s Books, Charmed Life has been a favourite escape to parallel fantastical worlds since 1977, and remains refreshingly captivating and reassuringly addictive in its latest paperback edition with a wonderful new jacket illustration.
The adventure begins in a strange and not-quite contemporary England that is still peppered with paddle steamers, horse-drawn carriages and girls wearing petticoats. Orphans Eric Chant (nicknamed Cat) and his sister Gwendolen, a gifted witch, are whisked away to live in a castle with Chrestromanci, a much-revered man of magic, wealth and mysterious ways. Their new life is full of the surreal and unexpected, and there are several crazy new rules to master–not least by Gwendolen who must learn to channel her astonishing powers for good instead of mischief as she forever seems determined to do!
Why did I read this book: I wanted to try a Diana Wynne Jones’ novel and this seemed the best place to start.
How did I get this book: Bought.
Cat and Gwendolen Chant are siblings whose parents have drowned in a boating accident. Orphaned, they are taken in by a Mrs Sharp – a Certified Witch – who notices Gwendolen’s growing powers and arranges for the girl to have magic lessons whilst Cat can only watch from afar, since he can’t do any magic at all.
What’s a boy to do when his older sister who is his only living relative is also a most powerful witch, one who wants to take over the world? Why, cling to her of course, no matter what. That’s how Cat, follows his sister Gwendolen around and does everything she orders him to. That’s also how, when Gwendolen decides she wants to be a ward to the most mysterious-and-powerful magician known as Chrestomanci and takes the necessary steps to do so, Cat finds him whisked away to Chrestomanci castle, taken from his life, friends and even Mrs Sharp, whom he has grown fond of.
But things don’t proceed as Gwendolen thought they would once they move to the castle. Far from it. Thinking that her AWESOME powers would ingratiate her to Chrestomanci, she is befuddled when she learns that she is not allowed to do magic and that her lessons will be stopped until further notice. But if you think this would stop Gwendolen you are sorely mistaken, mister. Nothing can stop Gwendolen which is what the inhabitants of Chrestomanci castle – the Family – will soon find out.
Charmed Life is my first introduction to Diana Wynne Jones’ novels. I know, I know, pretty slow on the uptake, right? But dear readers, “better late than never” is the motto I live by and now I have loads of other books to look forward to reading. Because this book? It was EXCELLENT. Of the exact type of excellence that I love and it is ever so charming.
Starting with Cat, whose point of view is the one we get throughout the story. It is through his eyes, that we get to know everybody, that we get to see the other characters, that we get to follow the story. Of course, his point of view is infused with a certain amount of naivety and innocence because he is so young and so painfully clueless sometimes. Even though it is full of funny, delightful things, it is also a heartbreaking narrative because it is clear to everybody but Cat that his absurd yet understandable devotion to Gwendolen is never reciprocated. And if at first, one assumes that the story is going to be Gwendolen-focused given her outrageous behaviour and AWESOME powers, it is soon clear that this is Cat’s story and his alone. And just to what extent, we only learn close to the ending. But that is not the only surprising thing about Charmed Life: the plot takes certain turns at one point completely changing the game and making the story full of such wonderful inventiveness and possibilities even if the world-building is not exactly truly developed or explained (and for someone like me, who always wants to know the How and Why, it was slightly frustrating. I hear though, that more is revealed in the other books in the series).
There are many other things to like about this book and even though I don’t want to say a lot more for fear of spoiling the twists some of these things are: The Family;toy soldiers brought to life; parallel worlds; the cutest pet dragon ever; one enchanted garden; awesome female characters (both good and evil); a flamboyant magician who wears the coolest dressing gowns ever; a were-tiger; a were-violin (don’t ask) and many more.
Writing-wise, it has an old-style feel to it, almost fairy-tale-ish. In a way it reminded a lot of Neil Gaiman’s writing in Stardust and The Graveyard Book and I dare say that if you like DWJ you will like Neil Gaiman (and vice-versa). In that sense, I am not surprised that Gaiman wrote a foreword (“Why You’ll love this book”) to the edition that I have, telling how he first found this book which is also his first DWJ’ novel, by the way (HA! I have something in common with Neil Gaiman). He says and I think those are the best words to describe how I felt about Charmed Life and DWJ’s writing:
“comfortable with bending science fiction and fantasy, comfortable with magic and with writing the kind of children’s fiction that’s good because it’s good fiction without regard to the age of the reader”
Notable Quotes/Parts: One of my favourite sequences is when Chrestomanci summons Cat to his office and Cat is terrified because he has secrets to keep and then when he learns what Chrestomanci wants and it is so funny:
“I am going to start you on witchcraft lessons.”
Cat had simply not expected this. He was horrified. His legs waved about in the chair with the shock. (..)
(…) “Oh, you mustn’t do that!” he said. “It would be quite fatal. I mean, you can’t trust me at all. I’m black hearted. I’m evil. It was living with Mrs Sharp that did it. If I learnt witchcraft, there’s no knowing what I’d do. Look what I did to Euphemia.(…)
What exactly makes you think you’re so wicked?”
That question rather stumped Cat. “I steal apples,” he said.
Additional Thoughts: Charmed Life is the first in the Chrestomanci series and all of them have been reissued here in England with these wonderful covers: seriously, these pictures cannot convey how beautiful they are. I shall read these soon.
After that I think I will pick up: Howl’s Moving Castle since I watched the movie and really enjoyed it. I have also been told by Thing Means a Lot’s Ana that I MUST read Fire and Hemlock (Beware the hideous cover) and I will oblige because I trust her opinion 100%. The book is out of print though but thankfully my library has a copy! Woot.
Are you a fan of Diana Wynne Jones? Any favourite books?
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading next: Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen