No witchcraft? Gwendolen Chant - a gifted witch in the making - has other ideas and is determined to get the better of the great enchanter. Her brother Cat, who has no magical gift, is powerless to stop her. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Diana Wynne Jones has been one of my favourite authors ever since I was a little girl. There’s something almost indefinable about her books, something so magical that makes reading them a truly special experience.
And yet for some reason I have never read the Chrestomanci series. Don’t ask me why – they’re some of her most famous books. Perhaps they simply never had them at my library as I was growing up, and so I wasn’t aware of them. Still, thankfully I’m now putting this right, beginning with book one: Charmed Life.
This was a lovely book. Its main characters are quite young children, and I would put its reading age a little lower than the Ingary (Howl) or Dalemark (Spellcoats, Drowned Ammet, etc) series, though there are some bits that could be frightening for very young readers. Of course, all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books are hugely appealing to adults as well. As usual, it’s about magic, but also about family, identity, growing up and gaining confidence in oneself, and it has themes relating to power and its misuse. As with Diana’s other books, there is also a lovely sense of Britishness and a great charm to the story. Diana Wynne Jones’s books tend to make me feel cosy, and this one was no exception.
The characters in the book are written very well, which is something this author has a particular knack for. The main character, Cat (Eric), is timid and passive, allowing his older sister Gwendoline to walk all over him. As the story progresses he gains confidence and is finally able to stand up for what he wants. Gwendoline is rash and selfish, and Diana Wynne Jones has done a fantastic job of making such an unlikeable character so interesting – the reader can see why she makes others laugh or admire her, even when they despair of her. Cat’s relationship with his sister is also realistically portrayed. He resents her, but he also looks up to her, and even though she scares him he can’t help leaning on her for support and missing her when she is gone. She’s family and he loves her, and he’s spent a long time looking to her as the leader. This is almost his undoing, as Gwendoline seems to be taking sibling rivalry a little more seriously (murderously) than Cat!
Chrestomanci might be the good wizard of the story, but this does not prevent him having character flaws, moments of bad judgement, and quite a bad attitude to the children. Both Gwendoline and Janet are very practical and brave, as is Chrestomanci’s wife, a powerful magic-user in her own right, and the female characters in general are more decisive and less dithering than the men (even when they’re being bad). Chrestomanci’s children are sometimes antagonistic, sometimes helpful, and there are no clear-cut enemies until the very end of the book. Every character is more complex than a simple hero or villain (yes, even Gwendoline!).
The story is good, but quite simple and a very quick, easy read. I didn’t think the levels to the story went as deep as in many of Diana’s other books. Howl’s Moving Castle has many themes and a number of subplots that begin to thread together at the end, but it is also quite a surprising love story between two unusual characters, and an extremely romantic book. The Dalemark series has incredible world-building and myth-making, and the story and themes do get quite intense, while books like Fire and Hemlock need at least two readings to understand their complexity. There’s nothing wrong with Charmed Life being simpler, but it didn’t take my breath away as some of her other books have done.
However, this is really the only criticism I have of the story – that out of a range of truly amazing books, this one is perhaps a little weaker than the others. Besides which, it’s the first in a series – maybe the later books grow deeper as the characters grow older, and as the point of view shifts. I’ll definitely be reading more, so I guess I will find out!