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
ChachicNovember 29, 2010 at 6:32 am
I love the UK covers! I have the Chrestomanci books in volumes I, II and III and they aren’t as nice as the editions that you have. I’ve only read volume I though but I hope to read the others soon.
Isn’t it a hoot that Neil Gaiman and DWJ are friends? I was so happy when I saw Neil tweet a picture of Robin McKinley and DWJ a couple of months ago.
My favorite DWJ is still Howl’s Moving Castle, probably because it was the first of her books that I read. It’s really different from the movie and I hope you like it. 😀
AnaNovember 29, 2010 at 6:39 am
I think that was such an awesome picture – that was when I decided that it was time to read this!
I am not only going to read Howl’s Moving Castle, I am also making everybody in the office read it as well: it is my pick for our next book club meeting!
AnonymousNovember 29, 2010 at 6:41 am
Terrific!!! Don’t expect Howl’s to be anything like the movie though. ( I hope you manage to get the edition with the interview in the back where DWJ describes her meetings with the film production team – it’s charming!
CelineNovember 29, 2010 at 6:42 am
ARGH! That last post was me, Goddamnit! Someone must have erased my cookies!
AnaNovember 29, 2010 at 6:44 am
I hate it when Goblins delete my cookies too! 🙂
CelineNovember 29, 2010 at 6:47 am
LOLZ – BTW I’m pretty sure those covers were done by the amazing David Frankland ( he did the beautiful covers for Paul Bajoria’s The Printer’s Devil – and many others)I’m a huge fan of his work. If the covers aren’t by him someone is ripping his style off to a tee!
ChachicNovember 29, 2010 at 7:08 am
Good job on the book pimping! I hope you all enjoy reading Howl’s Moving Castle. I thought it was great that Howl and Gen ended up as the last two characters in the YA fantasy showdown.
JohnNovember 29, 2010 at 7:11 am
Oh, I am so happy! In two days I’m seeing you two of my favorite new ‘discoveries’ of this year. Howl’s Moving Castle is amazing. I have to get the Chrestomanci bind-ups in the US sometime soon, as my library doesn’t have them. 🙁 The US cover for Fire and Hemlock, from what I’ve seen online, is marginally worse. It’s just…bad.
Also, there are two following books to Howl’s Moving Castle. The Castle in the Air and the House of Many Ways. Both aren’t direct sequels, but they are supposed to be as good or almost as good as the first one. Very excited to read them!
SaraNovember 29, 2010 at 7:20 am
My first DWJ was A Tale of Time City, which I found randomly in my middle school library all those many years ago and have loved ever since. I still read it on a regular basis. I definitely recommend it, as well as Archer’s Goon.
rachelNovember 29, 2010 at 7:39 am
Howl’s Moving Castle and Fire and Hemlock are my favourites. Archer’s Goon is also excellent. Also: Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is about tourists from another dimension…
TinaNovember 29, 2010 at 8:40 am
Diana Wynne Jones is probably my all time favorite fantasy author. Most people from my generation say that Harry Potter and JK Rowling defined their childhood, but for me it was DWJ. The first one I ever read was Howl’s Moving Castle and it remains my favorite book to this day. I really love the UK covers. I’ve been trying to get my hands on the UK version of Fire and Hemlock (I’m not a fan of the US edition.) So glad that you enjoyed Charmed Life and will be reading more DWJ!
Rose LernerNovember 29, 2010 at 10:08 am
Eee! I ADORE Diana Wynne Jones!! You have definitely started with some of the best–The Nine Lives of Christopher Chant and Howl’s Moving Castle are my favorites. I read Howl so many times as a kid…it is very different from the movie but what is the same is that Howl is a lovely, lovely beta hero who gets mad when Sophy messes with his hair dye. I had SUCH a proto-crush on him when I was 9.
I also love A Tale of Time City, The Time of the Ghost, and Witch Week. Fire and Hemlock is fantastic but don’t expect to understand the ending…
Oh, and I haven’t read her books published in the last few years yet so I hope you will review them and tell me whether I should!
KMontNovember 29, 2010 at 11:26 am
Ana, apparently I’m slower on the uptake than you. I’ve only ever heard of the Howl’s Moving Castle movie – just the tilte, didn’t know a thing about it. I love your enthusiasm for this one tho. Going to check and see if the library has it. 🙂
MaryKNovember 29, 2010 at 1:02 pm
I’ve read only Charmed Life and Howl’s Moving Castle so far and loved both. Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my all-time favorite books. I have it in audio as well and am in the middle of a relisten. It doesn’t get old.
I read HMC before I saw the movie and experienced total disconnect when I finally did see it. It’s a visually beautiful film, but having read the book beforehand, the plot is just … not right. And I kind of hated the movie ending. I’ll be interested to see if your opinion of the movie changes at all after you’ve read the book.
Those Crestomanci covers are really nice! I’ll have to see about getting them from the UK. Her US covers are pretty awful. The more recent omnibuses aren’t bad I suppose, and the HMC cover is okay. But I’d never have picked up one of her books based on the cover. If they’re not downright ugly, they’re very juvenile. I imported a UK copy of Enchanted Glass because the US cover screamed “ages 7-12” to me.
KristenNovember 29, 2010 at 2:11 pm
My husband LOVES Diana Wynne Jones’ books, especially the Chrestomanci ones and A Tale of Time City. We have quite a few of her books around including a couple I got because they looked interesting, but I’ve only read Dogsbody so far. It’s about the dog star Sirius being punished to live as an actual dog on earth and it was rather enjoyable.
Darren @ Bart's BookshelfNovember 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm
I’ve really enjoyed the two DWJ books Ive read. Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy, so I’m really looking forward to reading this one, which I managed to find a copy of earlier this year!
LiNovember 29, 2010 at 2:54 pm
I just read Charmed Life earlier this month and loved it as well!
Before this, Howl’s Moving Castle was the only DWJ I absolutely loved (both the book and the movie, though they are rather different) – but I have now hunted down all the Chrestomanci books and am devouring them.
MandiNovember 29, 2010 at 3:08 pm
Well – I’m late to the party too. I just requested this book off of a swap. It sounds adorable!
AnonymousNovember 29, 2010 at 3:17 pm
Yes! Many a favorites 🙂 DWJ is one of my absolute favorite authors. My best loved DWJs are:
Conrad’s Fate- loved the main character, the glimpse of young Chrestomanci, the worlds presented, the plot twists and final reveal
The Dark Lord of Derkholm- loved the concept, the way all these scattered and wholly different plotlines gradually merged, the whimsical worlds and creatures inhabiting them
The Lives of Christopher Chant- loved the many, many worlds that are visited in this story,
Raonaid LuckwellNovember 29, 2010 at 3:17 pm
I read my first book by her last summer. Heck I didn’t even know the animation my kids and I loved so much was from a book, so of course I have to read that book.
It was quite cute read, one that I would highly recommend to my boys to read.
BrandyNovember 29, 2010 at 6:03 pm
Ah, I really want those new UK editions of Chrestomanci. Mine aren’t nearly that awesome looking. I just started reading DWJ this past year and have loved it. You’re right, better late than never.
My favorite is probably The Lives of Christopher Chant because it’s all about Christopher who I love. It has a lot of Millie too and her story is amazingly awesome.
LauraNovember 29, 2010 at 6:32 pm
Ooh, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorite books, it’s lots of fun and a really cool idea. I also really like Year of the Griffin.
redheadNovember 29, 2010 at 6:51 pm
Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorite movies, and I also loved the book, even though it’s quite different.
More DWJ is the perfect addition to my booklist for next year, I want to get into some more classic YA, and since this is an older title there is a chance I’ll be able to find it at the library.
LizNovember 29, 2010 at 6:55 pm
My only regret with DWJ is that I did not discover her books as a child/YA reader. What amazes me is how different from each other her books are–if you try something like Fire and Hemlock or Time of the Ghost it’s like someone different (but equally inventive) from the author of the Chrestomancis or Howl (my favorite, if pressed) wrote them. Both Dark Lord of Derkholm and Tough Guide to Fantasyland are hilarious tributes to/send-ups of high fantasy. You have so much great DWJ reading ahead of you!
Andrea K HostNovember 29, 2010 at 8:38 pm
How I envy you, to be reading Diana Wynne Jones’ for the first time!
That new series of covers really is special isn’t it? And it’s amazing how timeless the stories are. Twenty or thirty years later and there is really very little which feels remotely dated.
She’s a huge influence on Neil Gaiman, and I love his reaction to her dedication of Hexwood to him:
KatieNovember 30, 2010 at 3:19 am
Trust me, if you liked Charmed Life you’ll LOVE Conrad’s Fate 🙂 It’s adorable.
SimchaNovember 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm
I fell in-love with these books when I was thirteen and the Chrestomanci was one of my first crushes 😉
I recently read. If you enjoyed this one than you should read The Lives of Christopher Chant, the story of this Chrestomanci as a child.
hapaxNovember 30, 2010 at 12:17 pm
I love everything DWJ has written, especially those with the twisty Moebius strip plots. DEEP SECRET and HEXWOOD are favorites; the Dalemark series are individually very good, but unbelievably mind-shattering when read as a whole; and if you can get your hands on it, TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND is both hysterically funny and a treasure trove of tips on How Not To Write.
AnonymousMay 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm
I’m literally in love with DWJ’s books. so far I’ve read about ten of them and I just can’t stop! for now my favs are Howl’s moving castle, Conrad’s Fate and the Ponhoe Egg, but only slightly because all of her books are brilliant, really. 😀
OliverJuly 5, 2012 at 5:52 pm
I read the Chrestomanci series as a child and they’ve been some of my dpfavourite books ever since. I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned Power of Three by DWJ, completely different but still wonderful. I couldn’t say how many times I’ve reread it.
emma woodcockJanuary 6, 2013 at 2:54 am
Lovely review 🙂 And it’s always a pleasure to encounter other DWJ fans (there don’t seem to be half enough of us!)
Charmed Life is a perfect little book, isn’t it? As is Howl’s Moving Castle – officially my all time favourite book, http://emmawoodcock.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/howls-moving-castle-the-best-book-in-the-world
I’m surprised no one in the comments has mentioned The Homeward Bounders, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Homeward-Bounders-Diana-Wynne-Jones/dp/0006755259 which is also brain-bendy-amazing in the usual DWJ ways 🙂 If you don’t know it you should definitely check it out.
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones | dreaming out loudJanuary 21, 2015 at 11:38 pm
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