Charmed Life (The Chrestomanci) by Diana Wynne Jones

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Charmed Life (The Chrestomanci) by Diana Wynne Jones

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Stylish but accessible, captivating and emotionally realistic story of magic in a (slightly) alternative world with a mildly Dickensian flavour but modern sensibilities. Better written than Harry Potter, but should appeal to most Potter fans and comes recommended for children and adults aged 7+.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0007255290

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Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolen are orphans. Their parents have drowned in a paddle-steamer disaster and they are looked after by a certain Mrs Sharp, a Certified Witch. The Fund set up after the catastrophe helps with conventional education, while Gwendolen is receiving magic lessons from Mr Nostrum. Cat's and Gwendolen's lives change completely when a mysterious, powerful and a rather dashing personage - "You Know Who" - Chrestomanci himself takes the orphans to live with his family in the Chrestomanci castle. Gwendolen has high hopes for learning Advanced Magic and believes she's on the way to fame and power , but for the time being her increasingly more outrageous jinxes result in her magic being taken away from her: what is a witch to do, if her hopes for ruling the world are so cruelly squashed? What is the power the Castle is exerting on the children? Who are all those people surrounding Chrestomanci? And who is Chrestomanci himself?

Charmed Life is the first book in the now semi-classic series. Written in 1977, the novel has been reissued at the time of the publication of a paperback version of Diana Wynne-Jones new novel, The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones which continues the Charmed Life story.

The story is narrated exclusively from the point of view of Cat (though not technically by him) and there is a great deal of understated but very convincing emotional truth in the portrayal of his worries, feelings and attitudes. A younger brother, magicless and dominated by his rather fiery, selfish and bent on world-dominance sister, he nevertheless (and understandably) clings to her after the death of their parents and allows her to order him about and use (in more insidious ways too). Charmed Life is as much a tale of the children's adventure in Chrestomanci's Castle as of the undercurrents of sibling rivalry and emotional dependencies, as well as Cat's gradual disentangling from Gwendolen's dominance and coming to his own, if not, at least yet, coming of age.

Rarely for a children's book, there are not only twists and turns in the storyline, but one of the principal characters and a few secondary ones change their moral colours, and it's a genuine surprise not only for Cat but also for a reader. Younger children, especially girls, may need some dampening of their early enthusiasm for Gwendolen to lessen the disappointment.

Above all, though, Charmed Life is a story of magic, with a deftly drawn but not over-described world in the background. Plenty of exciting action, suspense and colourfully described magic appeal to children's sense of adventure, there is a good sprinkling of often rather surreal humour and well developed cast of main and supporting characters, colourful but not falling into a caricature while the few really scary scenes exude genuine menace.

The focus is on the adventure, the magic and the psychological relationships between the characters, while the world building is done only as far as necessary. The more anorakish of the readers can fulfil their need to know more about the construction and mechanics of the world(s) of Chrestomanci by perusing the "beyond the book" extras at the end of the volume.

Even now, when older-children's fiction veritably overflows with wizards, the tale of Cat Chant is a story worth reviving. Written in a immediately accessible but slightly old-fashioned style that reminded me of Edith Nesbit, Susanna Clarke and even C. S. Lewis, Charmed Life is a readable, exciting and very engaging fantasy that would certainly appeal to what can be loosely described as the Harry Potter audience: children aged 8 up, teens and many an adult as well. At just over 200 pages, Charmed Life left me definitely wanting more, though it's clearly a book aimed at children and accessible from relatively early age: there is little in Charmed Life that can't be enjoyed by children as young as 6 - if the parent has willingness to read it to them.

Thanks to the publishers for sending the book.

In many ways this book (although children-aimed and much shorter) reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but young people who enjoy this book might also like Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson.

Booklists.jpg Charmed Life (The Chrestomanci) by Diana Wynne Jones is in the Top Ten Books for Young Readers That Feature a Passage Between Worlds.

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