Master of his own fates

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea
William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea

Diana Wynne Jones Conrad’s Fate
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2006 (2005)

In the English Alps
Conrad tries to change his fate.
Unsuccessfully.

Conrad’s Fate is a first-person narrative by the eponymous Conrad Tesdinic, a boy who lives in a world where England is geologically still attached to continental Europe, in an alpine town called Stallery dominated by the slightly sinister Stallery Mansion. Ironic, really, when it’s possible that the author may have derived the name via St Allery (of possible French origin, a variant of St Hilaire) from Latin hilaris meaning cheerful: Stallery is anything but a happy place.

Like many a traditional fairytale hero Conrad is thrust into a magical adventure where he has to balance his innate gifts with the usual resourcefulness required of such a hero. These gifts aren’t really identified till the end, but his other talents seem to include getting into trouble.

When he goes to Stallery Mansion to try to resolve what is said to be his “fate”, his troubles are compounded by meeting the 15-year-old Christopher, who has his own problems to solve, not least in trying to find his young lost friend Millie.

I liked the underlying idea that, while a lot of fantasy is reliant on the fulfillment of predictions, prophecies and “fate”, Conrad has to come to terms with whether such a fate is predetermined (because everybody says it is so) or whether he is indeed master of his own fate and therefore able to change the future that has been expected to happen.

Though sixth in publishing order, the appearance of the young Christopher Chant, the future Chrestomanci, makes this the second in chronological order. In fact this was the first of the Chrestomanci sequence that I read, and it is testament to its standalone qualities that the story was intelligible without previous familiarity with the others in the series. Its claustrophobic atmosphere is amply reinforced by being set in the upstairs-downstairs world of a large country house, and the strange world of the master-servant relationship is not only conveyed well but subverted in the usual Jones fashion.

There is also a very classic crime novel feel to the denouement in the library, like something out of an Agatha Christie or a Cluedo board game, which I suspect Jones may have been consciously evoking. I wonder too if the final sequence involving a demon was indebted to the climactic scene of the 1957 British horror film Night of the Demon: adapted from the M R James story Casting the Runes and released in the States as Curse of the Demon, it featured an impressive stop-motion creature which, nevertheless, I felt destroyed any sense of ambiguity inherent in the conclusion of James’ short story.

No such ambiguity exists in Conrad’s Fate however, and none is needed.

Still from Night of the Demon (1957)
Still from Night of the Demon (1957)

Review first published March 2013

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3 thoughts on “Master of his own fates

    1. One image that stands out for me is the nightmare staircase that the yongsters have to negotiate, that and the final denouements — wonder where Diana dredged all that up from?

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