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Book(s): Chrestomanci (books 1 and 2) Diana Wynne Jones

February 11, 2011

I don’t usually review more than one book at a time, but these are part of a YA series and it’s easier to do both at once.

So this is my first experience with Diana Wynne Jones. Again, thank you to the book-blogging community for opening my eyes to this fantastic writer! I am on a huge YA/children’s novel kick and so I have like 4 DWJ books stacked up at home (along with some John Bellairs, Harriet the Spy, and a couple others). She is really great — I wasn’t sure what to expect, but these two books are so fun. I was afraid they might be *too* below my grade-reading-level (if you know what I mean) but I had nothing to fear. Her writing is clear, charming, straightforward and uses plenty of big words and concepts when called for.

So, can I first just say that J.K. Rowling HAD to have read Charmed Life before starting her Harry Potter series? Come on. An orphaned boy with a destiny, a magical castle where kids are tutored in magic, a flamboyant all-powerful man who must not be named… the stories are quite different once you get into them, but the main elements start off so obviously similar that I felt a bit of outrage on the part of Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote Charmed Life in 1977, long before the Harry craze.

It’s the story of young Cat Chant, and his sister, Gwendolen, set in an alternative Edwardian(ish) world where magic is commonplace. After they are orphaned, they are eventually taken to Chrestomanci Castle, where they are to be tutored in regular schooling and also in magic, if they wish. The Chrestomanci, a man who is pretty much the entire Ministry of Magic in a single person, takes an interest in Cat (who has shown no talent for magic) but ignores Gwendolen (who is an accomplished witch at her young age). This infuriates Gwendolen, who turns into an unrepentant and utter bitch, and really goes to town to show that arrogant Chrestomanci who has the *real* talent.

Ultimately it is revealed that Cat has nine lives, and is therefore an extremely valuable person, although it is a mystery how he keeps losing his lives so quickly. He’s only down to three by the end! He is also quite a talented wizard, but it takes a series of interesting events for his talents to become noticed. Gwendolen is perfectly awful the entire time and is a fantastically horrible character.

What I really enjoyed about this was how character-driven it was, despite also creating a series of worlds and rules for each world. Cat and Gwendolen and the Chrestomanci and all the rest are fully realized and very interesting in themselves, and then the story is great fun as well.

The second book, The Lives of Christopher Chant, is a prequel to Charmed Life and tells the story of how Chrestomanci got his job. Christopher is also a nine-lived boy, and loses his lives even more quickly than Cat does. His adventures are even more thrilling than those of Cat, and I think I preferred this book, although both of them were really terrific.

These are extremely enjoyable for YA fans of all ages — while the writing is simple and totally appropriate for young readers, the themes are easy for everyone to relate to, and the writing is lovely and charming. I really appreciate books for kids that don’t shy away from the ick of real life: people who are really and truly awful, hard decisions that must be made, the death of people we love, betrayal, disappointments. Both Christopher and Cat must become resilient and creative, and use their powers for good, not evil (or mischief).

So now I am a total Diana Wynne Jones fan and can’t wait to read the other books I have stacked up at home. I’m going on a big YA spree this weekend.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 12:37 pm

    I’ll have to share this with my 7th grader. He loved “Harry Potter,” but since reading along with his older sibs has chosen to go down the path of computers and electronics rather than picking up a good book. I sometimes wonder if he’s really my child.

    • February 11, 2011 1:23 pm

      These were pretty good and very Harry Potter. Perfect for a book-averse 7th-grader!

  2. February 11, 2011 2:39 pm

    yay! So glad you enjoyed them. And you know what? I love Chrestomanci, but for the most part I love DWJ’s other books even more.

    • February 11, 2011 3:51 pm

      I can’t wait to read them. I have at least two, maybe three, sitting at home waiting for the weekend.

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