12 worlds. A nine-lived enchanter. A castle. Magical stealing and smuggling. Nasty cats. Dragons kept in an office.
There’s all that and more in Chrestomanci: Volume I by Diana Wynne Jones.
Chrestomanci: Volume I consists of two separate novels that take place in the Chrestomanci universe: Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant. Both had their own strengths and weaknesses, both were immensely fun to read, and on the whole, I liked The Lives of Christopher Chant best of the two.
Charmed Life is the tale of two children: Eric, more commonly known as Cat, and his older sister Gwendolen, who is a powerful and accomplished witch. Both orphaned as children, they were brought largely under the care of Mrs. Sharp, a rather shady witch who lived downstairs from their family. When Gwendolen’s magical ambitions outstrip the magic their small town has to offer, she writes a letter to Chrestomanci, the most important enchanter in their land. To Cat’s dismay, the enchanter takes them both under his care at his castle. Insanity soon takes charge as Gwendolen takes a violent dislike to Chrestomanci’s children, Julia and Robert, and their magical rivalry reaches unnerving heights of pranks, clandestine deals, sorcery, and plans of outright world domination. And no, the last is not a childish exaggeration.
This book was a fairly quick read, the best part of which was the setting. Chrestomanci Castle felt like a character in its own right- bound up in mystery and hiding plenty of secrets, but nevertheless providing a secure haven for the people who lived there. I also loved the casual references to rankings of magic throughout this world- “enchanter” is one of the highest levels of any magic user, and “certified witch” one of the lowest. The detail that America in this particular world is called Atlantis is one that both made me laugh and established the quirky and hard-to-predict nature of the world of the Chrestomanci.
Character-wise, Charmed Life was solid in some parts and shaky in others. I found myself getting somewhat irritated by Cat, finding him too spineless for my taste. I could excuse some of his dishrag qualities because of his younger age and his bullying older sister, but there were moments where I just wanted him to grow a backbone and take charge of himself. However he’s more than made up for by his sister Gwendolen, who’s a very enjoyable evil older sibling, and whose antics had me alternately giggling and cringing. She’s one of the most horrible people in the book, but she was a lot of fun to read about. Janet was also memorable- I loved her for breaking Cat out of his mopiness and for her general attitude toward the bizarre situation in which she finds herself as a very ordinary girl caught up in an extraordinary world. Chrestomanci, the enchanter whose presence and mystery pervades most of the background, was interesting and intriguing, but he didn’t do very much to grab my attention in this particular story. On the whole, Janet was my favorite in this particular tale,but since she wasn’t in the majority of the story, I found myself getting impatient with the characters more than once.
This book had another significant flaw- the ending was very rushed and confusing, and there was a general feeling of crammed information towards the end of the story in the rush to explain the magic and system of the worlds. If I had read this novel as a standalone, I think I would have been very confused about the world and Chrestomani’s place in it. When it ends, it feels as though there’s a great deal unexplained, even though it’s hard to say exactly what’s left out.
This is where the second book, The Lives of Christopher Chant came in handy.
The Lives of Christopher Chant gives much more depth to the world of the Chrestomanci, especially when taken in conjunction with Charmed Life. It fills us in on just how important the post of Chrestomanci (it’s a title, rather than a name) is to this world. An enchanter who succeeds to the post of Chrestomanci has to have nine lives; it’s a sign that someone has very strong magical power. Those with nine lives have enough to control all magic in all twelve worlds, and they are very rare people. Christopher Chant is one of them.
Reading this story was fascinating to me because I already had a picture of Chrestomanci from Charmed Life. Since I knew that that was who Christopher would grow up to be, I really enjoyed seeing him as a rather sullen, stubborn, and headstrong child. He could go from being dour to confused to enjoying himself, and on the whole had quite a human range of emotion. Everyone in this book felt much more concrete than the characters of Charmed Life, and the world building offered by this book was spectacular. Through Christopher’s expeditions to the different Anywheres, we got to see a much clearer picture of this universe and the various machinations and laws it holds. Taken in conjunction with Charmed Life, it contrives to give the world a much wider scope. I liked seeing both high society and a magical smuggling ring. The various atmospheres of each different world were fascinating, and I hope that in the other books there’s more exploration of what these worlds are like.
The events of this book also had me much more intrigued from the beginning than those of Charmed Life. Which, again, is not to say that Charmed Life was bad, but the story of this book was much more intricate and just a little darker than those of the previous book. I had the sense that in this story, almost anything that appeared in the beginning would have bearing on the conclusion, and that was proved to be the case. This was a sharp contrast to Charmed Life, where the explanation for everything was unceremoniously dumped on the reader in the final chapter. Here the story and pieces of the puzzle would gradually fall into place. This book was solidly plotted, which made it an engrossing read.
Character-wise, there were many good ones in this novel. The villain of this particular novel was a fantastic example of the Magnificent Bastard and the secondary characters in this book were phenomenal- Dr. Pawson was easily the funniest and most amusing side-character I’ve ever read in a Diana Wynne Jones novel. Every second Christopher spent under his tutelage was time well-spent, and I was sad when Christopher left for Chrestomanci Castle because it meant there would be much less of him.
In terms of character relations, I found the undertone of Christopher’s extremely dysfunctional family to be very poignant, especially when he spent time with his father, whom he barely knew. It lent a rather sad thread to the story that I found lent quite a bit of depth to the various actions Christopher took and the feelings he had for various situations throughout the story. And Christopher’s growth over the course of the story made his story all the more compelling.
On the whole, both these books were worth the week or so they took me to read, and someone with more time on their hands than I have could probably finish them in less time. The style is very much intended for younger readers, and children will probably have less issues with the storytelling and characters than us jaded older readers. But I think anyone who enjoys magic and mystery would have a good time reading about the world of Chrestomanci, narrative flaws and all.