Cat Chant's life has revolved around his magically talented older sister, Gwendolyn, ever since their parents died in a ferryboat accident. She is all he has left, and because she is an impressively powerful witch, despite her youth, Cat feels safe around her. He and Gwendolyn live with Mrs. Sharp, a kind but unscrupulous witch, until the day a powerful wizard who knew their parents shows up and takes them off to his spacious, lovely castle to live. Cat is so sorry to leave Mrs. Sharp behind - Gwendolyn may be his sister, but she is capricious, thoughtless, and often unkind to him. Mrs. Sharp seems to feel genuine affection for Cat, unimpressive as he is compared with his talented sister.
Gwendolyn has ambitions, and she is excited to be taken to live at Chrestomanci Castle, where she is sure she will be honored and celebrated for her unusually strong abilities. Instead, she is treated like a child and is mostly ignored. She looks down her nose at everyone, particularly Chrestomanci, a handsome, elegant wizard who just looks vaguely in her direction as if he can't quite remember what she and Cat are doing there. Gwendolyn decides she'll show them a thing or two, and she unleashes her powers on them in astonishing - and often hilarious - ways. But she never gets the reaction she is hoping for. Matters escalate, and Cat begins to find his loyalties torn between the other children who live at the castle, who actually seem quite nice, and his sister. It won't be long before Cat is going to be faced with some serious choices - and some most surprising - and upsetting - truths.
This first book in the Chrestomanci series embodies the many reasons why I have adored books by Diana Wynne Jones since I was a child. It has a strong fantasy element that is central to the plot - and that element is surprising and immensely fun. For example, Cat when the sound of Cat's violin practicing annoys Gwendolyn, she turns his violin into a cat - because his playing, according to his sister, sounds like a cat yowling anyway, so what's the difference? Yet Jones's books are always so much more than a magic-filled story. Her books make readers think - as with the concept of parallel worlds that are separated by events that may have veered in a different directions, each world containing one of a series of people who may look identical but be very different, as they've been shaped by the culture and events of their own world. (If that makes no sense, don't worry - Jones explains it much better than I did!) I loved that sort of thing as child, and I still do so many years later. And the characters are complex, with issues - in this case the relationship between a brother and sister is examined, with all its emotional baggage, which in this case is fairly massive.
I read this one aloud to my children, (nine and eleven years old), and it was a huge hit. We'd read Witch Week some time ago, and they clamored to read all of the Chrestomanci books in order, so off we go. They loved this one, and we had some fascinating discussions about siblings and relationships, and the responsibilities that siblings should have towards each other. Plus the universe in which these books are set is just plain fun! I highly recommend Diana Wynne Jones's books to all lovers of fantasy (and to those who are wondering what all the fuss is about), and this series is a great place to start.
Books in the Chrestomanci series:
1. Charmed Life
2. Magicians of Caprona
3. Witch Week
4. The Lives of Christopher Chant
5. Mixed Magic
6. Conrad's Fate
7. The Pinhoe Egg
Charmed Life (#1 in the Chrestomanci series) by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 1977)
Also reviewed at:
Here, There and Everywhere: "I can surely see why this would be a popular series with the young people, and would be a book I would read to my kids ..well if they were kids, and if they didn't like reading it for themselves."
MindsBase: "It’s a gentle story, in the emotions. It’s a fantastical story, in the actions. And who doesn’t love a good battle of witches (or any crazy creature, for that matter!)"
Reviews of other books by Diana Wynne Jones:
Dark Lord of Derkholm
House of Many Ways
The Merlin Conspiracy