Sunday, April 22, 2018

Charmed Life (Book Review) #1977Club

The 1977 Club is a theme in which two prolific bloggers, Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, promote a specific year of published books. Anyone can join in by reading and reviewing a book published in 1977 and adding a link to that book's review in the comments on Simon's blog. 1968 and 1951 have also been promoted recently. 
Title: Charmed Life (Book 1 in the Chrestomanci quartet)
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publication: 1977, Beech Tree Books paperback edition
Genre: Children's Fantasy

Plot: As the younger brother of imperious Gwendolen, a talented young witch, Cat is used to being ignored and he is happy that way. But after their parents die and the town authorities put them in charge of elderly Mrs. Sharp, Gwendolen writes to their parents' oldest friend, Chrestomanci, about their situation. Chrestomanci comes to bring the two orphans to live with his own family and be educated with his children.  However, Gwendolen resents being treated like an ordinary child and begins plotting to use her magic not just to disrupt life at her new home but also promote her own greatness, without any concern for her brother's well-being.  

Audience: This is a children's book, suitable for ages 9 up, but just as delightful for an older reader. While characterized as fantasy and does include magic and witches, I would describe it as the type of fantasy that is set in a real world. Those who dislike dragons and elves don't need to worry.

My Impressions: Charmed Life is the first in a four-book series about Chrestomanci, which I read many years ago. It was a fun and entertaining reread and great introduction to the all-knowing and all-powerful Chrestomanci. The big reveal was clear to me because I remembered something similar in Archer's Goon (a book I recall as being especially clever) and, of course, it made me want to read the whole series in order (the book I am supposed to be reading today for my book group tomorrow is The Underground Railroad: Pulitzer prize winner though it is, wouldn't you rather read some well written fantasy?). 

Regular readers of this blog know that I love stories about orphans, and during this reread, I noticed that one of the usual conventions - that sibling orphans become closer and protect each other against outsiders - is flipped. Not only does Gwendolen have no loyalty to her brother, it is clear from the beginning of the story that she cares only about herself. There is a touching scene in which Cat, whose real name is Eric, yearns to play with Chrestomanci's children, Roger and Julia, who are playing with their toy soldiers (using magic their father has forbidden), and when they unenthusiastically invite him, he is afraid to accept because he knows Gwendolen would be furious. Later, he is flattered when they ask him to play in their treehouse because they have begun to accept him and once they are his friends, he becomes much more comfortable in his new home.   However,  Gwendolen's encounters with Chrestomanci continue to be contentious:

"I won't put up with it!" Gwendolen shouted at him. "In future, my letters are going to come to me closed!"

"You mean you want me to steam them open and stick them down afterward?" Chrestomanci asked doubtfully. "It's more trouble, but I'll do that if it makes you happier."

Gwendolen stared at him. "You mean you did it? You read a letter addressed to me?"

Chrestomanci nodded blandly. "Naturally. If someone like Henry Nostrum writes letters to you, I have to make sure he's not writing anything unsuitable. He's a very seedy person."

"He was my teacher!" Gwendolen said furiously. "You've no right to!"

"It's a pity," said Chrestomanci, "that you were taught by a hedge wizard. You'll have to unlearn such a lot. And it's a pity too that I've no right to open your letters. I hope you don't get too many, or my conscience will give me no peace."

"You intend to go on?" Gwendolen said. "Then watch out! I warn you!"

"That is very considerate of you," said Chrestomanci. "I like to be warned."

I suspect that as Jones was writing this book, she became so fond of Chrestomanci as a character that she decided she and we deserved more of him in future books! While Jones never received the acclaim (or sales) of J.K. Rowling, her books are creative, amusing, and intricate in a way that appeals to readers of all ages, and she probably did benefit as fantasy increased in popularity as Harry Potter became a craze. She is very funny without using slapstick humor I dislike. She also wrote for a variety of reading levels. Fire and Hemlock, one of my favorites, is a YA novel, so layered that I have reread it several times without being sure I got every nuance - great motivation for future rereads!
Source: I have enjoyed Diana Wynne Jones' books since I first found The Ogre Downstairs at the library and brought it home in the late 70s (I remember my mother laughing out loud as she read it that night). I collected her books when I could and, luckily, when I worked at Avon/Morrow I was able to get many of them in hardcover. I see I have a duplicate copy of The Spellcoats: leave a comment if you would like it.


Anonymous said...

Glad you could join in! I too read this (and everything else by DWJ) decades ago and I think she's a much better writer than a certain JKR. I wish I could convince everyone else of that....


Simon T (StuckinaBook) said...

Thanks for joining in! I love your comment about liking books about orphans - it's always amusing to see which little details attract us to books. For me, it's a maiden aunt, of course!

Lisa said...

There are two additional books featuring Chrestomanci, Conrad's Fate and The Pinhoe Egg - if you want the complete set :)

Constance Martin said...

I picked those up fairly recently and have not read them yet! A treat in store.

GSGreatEscaper said...

I too loved Charmed Lives and Witch Week. You are correct about the comparison to JKR and the books are great recommendations to those who have discovered HP as a younger reader and may not yet be ready for the later volumes.

Lory said...

Hahaha, that's a great passage about steaming open the letters. I agree about Chrestomanci being a character DWJ fell in love with and had to revisit, despite not usually being a "series" writer.

Charmed Life was my first Diana Wynne Jones novel (I even wrote a post about that). I've never looked back.