Diana Wynne Jones
The Lives of Christopher Chant
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1988)
This Diana Wynne Jones book has an intriguing title: we are used to The Lives of the Caesars (where more than one person is involved) or, on the other extreme, The Life of Brian (which is about just one person). The Lives of Christopher Chant, on the other hand, reflects the notion that one person can have, like a cat, more than one life. This notion is an old one, from the transmigration of the soul to the Russian folk-villain Koshchei, whose external soul is hidden away in one object enclosed within another, and so on; most recently the concept has become familiar from the Horcruxes within which Harry Potter’s nemesis hides pieces of his soul, but before you surmise that Jones copied Voldemort’s strategy it’s worth pointing out that The Lives of Christopher Chant predates Rowling’s series.
Christopher Chant’s ownership of nine lives makes him something special in the world into which he is born, but it is a destiny which he is reluctant to inherit. He discovers he is a nine-lifed enchanter, with the ability to move between parallel universes (Related Worlds in the terminology of the book). Like many another Chosen One he finds that he is a de facto orphan (his parents show little interest in or care for him, rather like Diana’s own parents in our own world) but also that the fate of the established order is threatened unless he can assume his responsibilities (when all he wants to do is to have friends of his own age and to play cricket). What child really wants to have responsibilities, let alone their world’s future fate, resting on their shoulders?
Christopher’s response is, of course, to eventually respond appropriately, though his sudden maturity and ability to command after a long period of petulance is the only weak point in the plotting. Other than that this is a wonderfully engrossing read, shot through with humour, memorable characters and, yes, intimations of mortality, set in a period with a late Victorian feel but which is obviously contemporary with our own world in the late 20th century (when Christopher briefly visits it and finds himself caught up in the horror of modern traffic).
Conceits, puns, childish whimsies, fairy-tales, observations on the absurdities of social conventions, these and other archetypal Jones motifs appear in their usual profusion to make this simultaneously an easy read but one which remains in the memory. Where else would you find a temple girl with the sacred title of Living Goddess who has chosen for herself the name of Millie, after a leading character in a book series which could have been written by Enid Blyton?
First published in 1988, this was the fourth title in the Chrestomanci series but in terms of chronology it is the first in that it describes the childhood of Christopher before he gets to become Chrestomanci. This name (possibly derived from Greek, meaning ‘useful divination’) refers to the official who supervises the use of magic in World 12A; to assume this office the individual has to be a nine-lifed enchanter, just like Christopher.
First published March 2013, this reposted review is of the first of the Chrestomanci books in chronological sequence. All but the last of the series have been reviewed and will be reposted. The second of the books to feature a young Christopher Chant is Conrad’s Fate. Next follows Charmed Life with a grown up Christopher but introducing a young Eric Chant.
The Magicians of Caprona despite appearing as a standalone title is still part of the Chrestomanci worlds, as is Witch Week.
A short story collection called Mixed Magics includes episodes from different moments in the chronology, leaving just the final title — and virtually the longest instalment in the series — The Pinhoe Egg.