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Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones was recommended to me by my friendly librarian. I was looking for something in the fantasy genre that wasn't dark and dreary and not full of monsters or vampires!
Charmed Life is part of the 'Chrestomanci' series and is the first to be read although not the first in the timeline of Chrestomanci himself.
I would suggest reading this first as Diana Wynne Jones has written it, because not knowing about these magical worlds and learning about them through the book is wonderful!
Gwen Chant is awful, she's a bossy little madam and you have every right to want to throttle her. Her brother 'Cat' is a complete wimp to start with but you'll like him, and it's not really his fault as you'll find out.
Chrestomanci is a fab, colourful man in charge of all the magic in many worlds, a big job, but he has a big personality!
I would highly recommend this book and the whole series, it's a children's book but adults will love it, it's colourful and quite funny in places. Diana Wynne Jones is a genius, she makes her stories come alive and you'll remember them for a long time
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 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.
Paperback: 288 Pages, £4.99 new on Amazon
Hotter than Potter? Whooaaa!! Anyone making such a statement is putting himself in a *very* dangerous spot - he'll get stoned or worse by the hordes of Harry Potter aficionados all over the globe. So better watch your step, HarperCollins, you publishers of this magic fantasy series. You'd better be right, and then some, otherwise there'll be no escape for you from the vituperous spells being concocted against you by the Hogwarths potion-blenders!!! Ha ha ha!!! [read: ominous laugh] Who, or rather -what-, has provoked this tirade on my part, you may be asking? It's not a tirade, no, sirs and mesdames, so please read on as I welcome you to the enchanted worlds of Chrestomanci. Charmed Life is the first in a series of five novels in the series "The Worlds of Chrestomanci", by veteran children's writer Diana Wynne Jones. The book was first published in the late seventies, I believe, and was followed by four other titles (not exactly sequels, rather "parallel" stories - the ingredients and worlds are the same, the characters and specific locations are not) published throughout the eighties. Charmed Life also won the prestigious Guardian Award for children. The advent of the Harry Potter fever wizened Ms Jones' publishers to the possibility of riding the magic-kingdoms bandwagon, so the series was repackaged in a millennium-friendly edition, complete with dual-level funky covers (an impulse-purchase inducing cover if ever there was one) and "Hotter than Potter" stickers splashed all over the point-of-sale displays. It seems the scheme was relatively successful - nowhere near Potter proportions, of course, but nevertheless... - since a spew of Diana Wynne Jones reprints followed with the same packaging and publicity treatment. But back to Charmed Life, else I get caught in a tormenting-tongue spell [whatever next?!]... The story starts off with two children, orphans, who live a misera
ble bleak life until a (seemingly) chance encounter with a weird magic-possessing person reveals to them their pre-ordained destiny - to be taught the ancient skills of magic in a remote place. Whereupon the mysterious and all-powerful lord of this remote place whisks them off to an enchanted castle where they meet fellow students and are made to attend lessons in witchcraft. Then evil strikes... Familiar? Ok, so perhaps I was trying to be clever with the above precis - but honestly, I was being faithful to the text... In fairness, the story develops, with Cat/Christopher - the perennially-slow student - and his sister Gwendolyn - destined to a future as supreme witch - being acquainted with the awesome forces of magic. Gwendolyn gets whisked to a parallel world, where her alter-ego was a queen, and this creates a cosmic rotation of all alter-Gwendolyns in all parallel worlds until the next one in line ends up in the original Gwendolyn's place (it doesn't sound so confusing when Jones describes it, so don't worry!!). I really can't explain more without giving away the main essential twist of the story. I came across a sample chapter being distributed for promotional purposes (it later turned out to be Chapter 2 of the book) a few months before publication of the reprint. When I read this sample, I hadn't yet heard of any of the innuendos and gossip-mongering about the alleged debt owed by JK Rowling to Jones' creations. So I cannot say I was in any way biased. But... but... but... I do remember distinctly thinking "This sounds soooo familiar". My arsenal of magic spells being unendowed with mind-reading spells, I shall definitely not be judging whether Ms Rowling had a peek at the original Chrestomanci series, consciously or unconsciously sparking off the fertile Potter goldmine. Certain similarities are there, and that cannot be denied, however the treatment given to the story is entirely different.
In Charmed Life, the writing is more luscious, if perhaps slightly dated (or should that be "classic", lest I be accused of age-ism?). The vocabulary used is somewhat wider, with more complex sentence constructions, however on the other hand Harry Potter deals with a wider range of emotions that children can/should/might identify with -- I'm speaking in comparatives, I know, but I believe if we want to be grounded in reality we cannot speak of a magic book without making reference to the Potter phenomenom. I felt the story to be somewhat slow-moving, especially in the first few chapters, while conversely the climax was reached and disposed of swiftly. A child will probably require a greater degree of concentration to read and enjoy Charmed Life rather than a Harry Potter adventure - although, truth be said, perseverance pays off in that they will ultimately be more rewarded with the Chrestomanci finale. There is another characteristic to Charmed Life, which is not necessarily a minus though definitely an asterisk. I'll explain: Humour is not much of a driving force in this book. Now this is not a deficiency, on the contrary, traditionally adventure books aren't so strong on the humour front. However, the Harry Potter revolution (sorry, there I go again...) has meant that for most children the equation is: children's books = HP formula. This is WRONG, make no mistake. There are as many valid styles of writing as there are mythical beasts in the dark forests... Yet, whether we like it or not, children will look for the HP elements in any book they read, and having come to appreciate humour and tongue in cheek they could be disappointed with the Chrestomanci treatment. But then again, Chrestomanci is the supreme wizard, his power and dominance extending to the known worlds, so cast away all doubts and levitate to your nearest scrolls-store to buy the Chrestomanci books for a world of enjoyment. Pure, u
It's fantastic to see the Diane Wynne Jones teenage wizard stories back in print. Everyone and their dog seemed to have forgotten these wonderful precursors to the Harry Potter stories and what a shame that was. These books are everything that Harry Potter is and then some. Superb writing, far less predictable, and the most wonderful storytelling. I was so overjoyed to see them that I bought the whole set and will now be living on a very tight budget for the rest of the month - but who cares, these were too good to miss and I shall take great delight in sharing them with the Harry Potter fans I know. It's nice for us 'oldies' to be able to say 'in our day these things were better' and prove it now and again :o)
The other day I was browsing my local bookshop and noticed a display of books by Diana Wynne Jones with 'Hotter than Potter' stickers plastered all over them. Unable to resist I promptly bought the entire Chrestomanci series and dashed home to devour them! Ok I hold up my hands! I was suckered in by rather obvious marketing tactics! but as any fellow Potter addict will admit sometimes you are just so desperate for another fix of Harry waiting for Rowling's next installment just ain't an option! Charmed Life tells the tale of orphans Cat and amateur witch Gwendoline who go to live with the mysterious Chrestomanci and his equally peculiar family. Cue a barrel full of adventures in the form of dragons and parallel worlds, apparitions and transmutations as Cat and Gwendoline discover more about themselves then either would care to know. Wynne Jones supposedly wrote 'Charmed Life' for her son who complained that there were not enough books that made him laugh... well my guess is this particular one didn't either! Aside from the fact that the hero 'Cat' is a wizard ( oops I've given away the plot already! ) there really aren't that many similarities to Rowling's Potter at all - there certainly isn't the same degree of humour! That's not to say their are no similarities! The name 'Chrestomanci' is considered taboo in the same way Rowling's 'Voldermort' is and, like Harry, Cat is an orphan but really any similarities are more associated with the genre than plagirism. Many of the scenes in Charmed life appear to be drawn from other sources Cat getting tied to a stone to have his throat cut was rather reminiscent of a similar scene in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe and there are also rather obvious links to myths and legends. For me where this book failed was in characterisation. Gwendolin is almost completely nasty and Cat leaves you feeling rather c
onfused by his seeming inability to comprehend the bleedin' obvious! What's more many of the secondary characters just became a confusing blur of names -and this is supposed to be a kid's book??? Don't get me wrong - this IS a good book it has all the essential ingredients of magic and mayhem and there is always plenty of action to keep you glued to the page but ultimately once you finish this book and put it down you will probably forget it - Harry Potter it most definitely is NOT!
Dragons, magic mirrors, evil witches and forbidden pots of marmalade. It sounds pretty standard fare for a fantasy novel, but Diana Wynne Jones was writing sparklingly brilliant kids books when J K Rowling was a twinkle in her publisher's eye... Therefore, she makes what could be standard, in a lesser writer's hand; extraordinary in hers. I have read a few of her other books, she wrote one of my favourite ever: 'Howl's Moving Castle', and this one is the first in what many people consider to be her best series ever. Christopher is jealous of his magical older sister, Gwendolyn. He admires her, but really would love to have some magic of his own. Gwendolyn is destined for big things, to be the best witch, the most talented enchantress in the world. Having been left orphaned when their parents died in a boating accident, Gwendolyn and Christopher (better known as Cat)are shipped out to their neighbour to be looked after. Gwendolyn is after better things in her life, and is thrilled when a rich and powerful man named Chrestomanci sends for them to come and live in his castle. Everything is luxurious and wonderful, until Gwendolyn notices something unusual about the castle, and comes to believe Chrestomanci is trying to quash her powers. Cat likes living in the castle but has to agree something strange is going on. Especially when his sister disappears and then returns looking ever so slightly different...is it her? Everyone else seems to think so. Cat is destined to be a hero, too, but in a very unexpected way. The twist at the end is excellent and quite illuminating on the rest of the book. I took a while to get into this, it moved quite slowly at first and I was very disappointed because I wasn't immediately gripped, as I was with her other books. I did come to love it, though. I don't think this is her best book ever, but I should imagine even her shopping lists are
better than a lot of the stuff lesser authors churn out. I don't think this quite deserves the 'Hotter than Potter' sticker the publishers have put on the front cover of these reissued (to catch on the tidal wave of Rowling's success)novels... Don't get me wrong, this is brilliantly inventive and entertaining. I ate it up once I'd got into it (a couple of chapters in, I suppose)but I will always love 'Howl's Moving Castle' first, last and always.... Perhaps if this is your first experience of Diana Wynne Jones, this will be your favourite.