Genre : Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : 1977
Publisher : Macmillan Publishers
Now that September is here (even if it is still 85 degrees in DC), I found myself wanting to read a book for this week’s review that made me think of Autumn. I was browsing my bookshelf when the perfect book jumped out at me – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chronicles of Chrestomanci. With the first book being published in 1977, this series is long overdue for the recognition it so richly deserves, and I always find myself going back to it just to spend some time in the world that Jones created. If you haven’t read the series before, please go to your nearest local bookstore and grab it because w o w it is such an underrated and beautiful story!!!
As Jones explains on an introductory page, “There are thousands of worlds , all different from ours. Chrestomanci’s world is the one next door to us, and the difference here is that magic is as common as music is with us.” In book one, Charmed Life, not only is there magic, there are also castles, dopplegangers (kind of??? it’s complicated, okay?), apple picking, good and evil witches/warlocks, cats that used to be fiddles, necromancers, fabulous outfits, and so much more! It is a wild ride from start to finish, and I can promise that you will love every second.
The basic plot of the book is as follows: Siblings Cat and Gwendolen Chant are orphaned after a freak boating accident, and are sent to live with Mrs. Sharp, a local witch who can only do the most basic of spells. This is a source of ridicule for Gwendolen – who has some crazy powerful magic – and she spends much of the early pages of the novel turning her nose up at Mrs. Sharp. Her magic, which she is learning to hone under the tutelage of the clearly nefarious Nostrum brothers – soon attracts the attention of Chrestomanci, the most powerful enchanter there is. Soon enough, both Gwendolen and Cat are sent off to Chrestomanci Castle, and that is where things really get interesting.
The whole book is told through Cat’s point of view, giving the story a sort of naïveté that can only be accomplished when told through the eyes of a young boy. What’s even more interesting is that, for most of the story, Cat has no desire to be the center of attention, or to even be noticed at all! And whenever someone does focus their attention on him, Cat usually turns into a flustered mess. The POV also accomplishes adding a lot of mystery and tension to the story, because the readers, along with Cat, have no idea what Gwendolen is really up to, but just like Cat, we keep hoping for a happy ending even if all the warning signs are there. And when one of the major plot twists happen – I can’t even hint at what it is, it would give too much away!!! – the readers are just as surprised and heartbroken as Cat.
The world as a whole is made up of amazing characters, and you find yourself growing attached to everyone, even if you only spend a couple of pages with them. The crux of the book is built upon Cat and Gwendolen’s relationship. From the very first page, Jones lets you know that Cat clings to Gwendolen because he has no one else left. There are times where their relationship seems like the typical sibling relationship – like when Gwendolen uses her magic to levitate wall mirrors for them to fly around on when Cat is feeling down – but then there are times when Gwendolen is so terribly cruel to Cat that you can’t understand why he stays by her side. But then you remember that she’s all he has – which makes some of her choices all the more repulsive. And that’s also why Gwendolen trying and usually failing to go up against Chrestomanci in a battle of wits, sarcasm, and magical prowess, is so satisfying.
“She said Mr. Nostrum would give his eyes for your 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.Chapter 2, page 28
Chrestomanci is one of the best literary characters ever created. There. I’ve said it. And while several versions of him appear throughout Jones’ series, the iteration of him in Charmed Life is my favorite. For most of the book, he spends most of his time suddenly appearing without warning, always dressed to the nines (usual in floral dressing gowns of varying colors) and in a seemingly constant state of bewilderment and confusion. And honestly…. that’s a mood. The level of sarcasm he achieves is also astounding, and he has one-liners throughout the book that have stuck with me for years, and are always enjoyable to revisit. Jones does an amazing job of slowly revealing more and more of Chrestomanci’s backstory and history of the course of the book, and by the end, ties up so many questions and things I was wondering about in the most satisfying way.
I wish I could talk more about the plot of the book, but I don’t want to give anything away, because if you are reading it for the first time, it’s so important to go in with no spoilers. I remember the first time I read it, I was so unsure of who the good guys were, and what everyone’s true motives were. So I refuse to spoil even the tiniest thing. All you need to know is that Gwendolen does not have good time at Chrestomanci Castle, and she makes sure everyone knows that by performing spells that bring a reign of terror to the castle, and everyone inside of it. For real, she does some spooky shit, and Jones does a great job of showing how greed and power can drive someone to do terrible things.
But Jones also shows us that there will always be people who make it their duty to stand up to those terrible things. And that – along with many, many other things – is why I love this book so much, and why I think it still holds up as such an amazing story. Because sometimes we need that reassurance that there is always someone looking out for the well-being of the world. Or, in this case, all of the worlds that are out there. And then there’s also the fact that Chronicles of Chrestomanci as a whole is just so damn cool and magical and everything that a fantasy fiction fan could ever want. If you’ve read the series, tell me about how much you love it! If you haven’t, then what are some of your favorite fantasy reads that only get better with age?
10 Fancy Dressing Gowns out of 10.