Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)
Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!
The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later.
There is no doubting the originality of her conception of the Related Series of Worlds linked by magic, and Charmed Life must have been one of the first, if not the first, of her many titles that made use of this conceit as a plot device. In addition, the idea of a powerful mage called Chrestomanci acting as a steward or even ombudsman of the use of magic in those worlds is enhanced by this individual’s all-too-obvious but endearing idiosyncrasies, such as his obsession with fine clothes (especially embroidered dressing gowns), his absentminded demeanour and his apparent aloofness. Appealing to a younger age group are the two main protagonists — a young boy and his sister, orphans both, who find themselves imbued with powerful but uncontrolled magic which they then need to learn to use responsibly. All this supplies the story with powerful tropes which has been often consciously or unconsciously copied (most obviously in the Harry Potter series), not least in the motif that proposes that powerful enchanters have nine lives (rather as cats are popularly imagined to have).
Having two siblings take centre stage in the story allows Jones to point out their different responses to wearing the mantles of awareness and responsibility. She has been criticised for making these two, Gwendolen and Eric, rather one-dimensional characters: Gwendolen is selfish, spiteful and small-minded, while Eric (whose nickname, significantly, is Cat) appears selfless, mild and rather innocent (one might even say insipid). However, most young readers would be less concerned with such adult expectations as character development and more concerned with identifying with an underdog figure who ultimately triumphs.
An older reader may also be more aware of those plot holes and inconsistencies, such as the confusing details of family schisms, the vaguely described hierarchy of magic users in Chrestomanci’s world and what precisely happens in the final magic confrontation. Nevertheless there are emerging details of Jones’ enduring enjoyment of names (both whimsical and punning) and the creation of a universe which just had to be explored in future novels, both of which more than amply compensate for any reader regrets over the only just less than perfect published tale. And what child (of whatever age) does not fantasise about living in a castle, especially one like Chrestomanci Castle, with its myriad rooms, extensive yet bewildering grounds, and strange secrets?
And the final question to mull over: which came first, the perfect title or the storyline?
The 2007 edition has the added attraction of special features, in particular a fascinating question and answer session with the author and a section on her concept of Related Worlds, both worth seeking out for their own sakes.
Review first published March 2013