Charmed Life is the first book (third chronologically) in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. I will be reading these books in the order Jones recommended, which follows neither the publishing order nor the chronological order, so my ordering of the books will reflect this. It was published in 1977 by Greenwillow.
“Cat doesn’t mind living in the shadow of his sister, Gwendolen, the most promising young witch ever seen on Coven Street. But trouble starts brewing the moment the two orphans are summoned to live in Chrestomanci Castle. Frustrated that the witches of the castle refuse to acknowledge her talents, Gwendolen conjures up a scheme that could throw whole worlds out of whack.”
General spoilers for The Chronicles of Chrestomanci.
What I Liked:
I love this series so, so much. Charmed Life, along with Howl’s Moving Castle, was among the first Diana Wynne Jones books I ever read, and I immediately fell in love with both of them. In fact, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci and Howl’s Moving Castle are the only Jones books I own; not because I don’t like any of her other books, but because I love these so much.
Chrestomanci is very similar to Howl in that they both dress extravagantly and both of them know more than meets the eye. Chrestomanci may seem vague and distracted most of the time, but, as Cat astutely notices, the vaguer he seems, the more acutely he is paying attention to it. It’s a rather neat trick, if you think about it, because it lulls the person he is observing into the false sense of security that he’s not paying attention to them, when he actually is. Cat is also rather like Sophie, in that he doesn’t know the half of what Chrestomanci is, knows, or is doing. The revelation of it all at the end is very satisfying, and in some ways, very awesome.
Gwendolen is that type of antagonist who seems extremely powerful, stubborn, and unstoppable at the beginning, but as the plot goes further and further along it is revealed that she is much more childish, selfish and ignorant than she at first appears, and the level of her antagonism goes down quite a lot, until you realize that she’s really just a spoiled brat who thinks she knows everything. She’s a nasty spoiled brat, but a much tamer antagonist.
Jones really is just letting us dip our toes in the water with this book, by simply introducing us to things such as nine-lived enchanters and other worlds. It is in the next few books in the series that her worldbuilding really takes off, and we learn much, much more about the world of Chrestomanci.
What I Didn’t Like:
Nothing, but I’m slightly biased when it comes to Dianna Wynne Jones. Everything she writes is made of angels (except for Aunt Maria).
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
The two children looked at her placidly over their cliffs of marmalade. “Oh, I wouldn’t know,” said Roger.
“Pudgy is comfortable,” said Julia. “It must be a nuisance to look like a china doll, the way you do.”
Gwendolen’s blue eyes glared. She made a small sign under the edge of the table. The bread and thick marmalade whisked itself from Julia’s hands and slapped itself on Julia’s face, marmalade side inward. Julia gasped a little. “How dare you insult me!” said Gwendolen.
Julie peeled the bread slowly off her face and then fumbled out a handkerchief. Cat supposed she was going to wipe her face. But she let the marmalade stay where it was, trundling in blobs down her plump cheeks, and simply tied a knot in the handkerchief. She pulled the knot slowly tight, looking meaningly at Gwendolen which she did so. With the final pull, the half-full jug of cocoa shot streaming into the air. It hovered for a second, and then shot sideways to hang just above Gwendolen’s head. Then it began to joggle itself into tipping position.
“What do you mean, Henry the Fifth?” barked Mr. Saunders. “Richard the Second was on the throne until long after Agincourt. What was his greatest magical achievement?”
“Defeating the French,” Janet guessed. Mr. Saunders looked so exasperated that she babbled, “Well, I think it was. He hampered the French with iron underwear, and the English wore wool, so they didn’t stick in the mud, and probably their longbows were enchanted too. That would account for them not missing.”
“Who,” said Mr. Saunders, “do you imagine won the Battle of Agincourt?”
“The English,” said Janet. This of course was true for her world, but the panic-stricked look on her face as she said it suggested that she suspected the opposite was true in this world. Which, of course, it was.
Mr. Saunders put his hands to his head. “No, no, no! The French! Don’t you know anything, girl?”
Charmed Life is a fantastic start to the series. It is quite definitely a stand-alone novel, but the next books build and expand on the world and the characters that Jones introduced to us here. Cat is a little thick during the course of the book, but the revelation at the end is very satisfying, and has a good deal of cool magic in it. This is probably my favorite book in the whole series, simply because of how charming it is.
You can buy this book here: Charmed Life (Chronicles of Chrestomanci)
Coming Up Next: The Lives of Christopher Chant