Magic and mayhem

castle

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

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13 thoughts on “Magic and mayhem

    1. Of course you may, Sue: it’s Harlech Castle in North Wales. I suspect it was also the model for a castle in one of Joan Aiken’s alternate history children’s fantasies, The Whispering Mountain.

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Oh my, now I need to look for that edition with the extras. I already own two copies of this book. I must say, I do not find Cat insipid at all — he has been a victim of abuse from infancy, and the story rather subtly and powerfully explores how he finds and claims his own inner strength in spite of that. Gwendolen is pretty one-sidedly evil, but some people are (or at least appear to be).

    1. ‘Insipid’ may not be the right word to use here I admit, Lory, especially in view of those burdens placed on young shoulders (your analysis of ‘abuse’ is exactly the right word for Cat’s treatment).

      Much of Cat’s coping strategy against the bullying he receives is, if I remember correctly, to fade as much as possible into the background. But “ignore the bully/bullying and they/it’ll go away” is definitely not the right tactic against deliberate and sustained exploitation, and not something that a vulnerable youngster will easily find a more effective alternative for. Still, you’re right, I could and should have found a better way to say that in the review.

      1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

        Sorry, didn’t mean to criticize your review — I’ve read others that also share this opinion of Cat and have always thought he was a bit misunderstood. Maybe I sympathize with him as one who tends to fade into the background myself?

  2. It was only this week, when discussing other people’s favourite Middle Grade books on Twitter, that I discovered I have three DWJ books on my To Be Read shelf. This is one of them. I keep juggling books nearer to the Soon To Be Read end – could this be another reshuffle? Thanks for the clear-eyed review.

  3. Because of my dad’s job, spent my early childhood in LA before my family moved back to Malaysia when I was 5. I only spoke English then, with a weird accent too, and my cousins were pretty horrid, so I often would fade into the background like Cat. (My parents were also the neglectful type so I spent a lot of time alone or with my siblings and cousins.) I think that’s why, discovering this book when I was older, I ended up feeling so much for his character. And on a more related note, I must find a copy with the extra bits! Which cover does your copy have?

    1. Mine is the 2007 HarperCollins edition (ISBN 9780007255290), blue, with cover illustration by David Frankland of Chrestomanci in dressing gown and top hat, Gwendolen and Cat in the middle ground and a turreted castle in the background. In that Q&A session with Diana she says Chrestomanci “came into being while I wrote the book, first as a shadowy, powerful figure with a dashing signature, and then as an exceedingly well dressed Dark Stranger, and then as himself in the Castle. I was as surprised as anyone to discover that he had a dressing gown for every day of the year (and one extra for leap years) and a few others for emergencies.” Another interesting answer comes with the root of her inspiration for Charmed Life: it “just came into my head … when Cat goes into Gwendolen’s room and finds it’s not Gwendolen in the bed…”

      That identification with a main protagonist (Cat in this case) is important for us readers when we’re young, and never entirely goes away when we’re adult. We often think we’re sophisticated enough to identify with unsympathetic or deeply damaged protagonists when we’re mature readers, but I bet none of us really aims for a diet of unpleasant anti-heroes in the books we choose for ourselves.

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