Perhaps, in spite of having no illusions about Gwendolen, Mrs. Sharp was really hoping to become Gwendolen’s manager when Gwendolen grew up. Cat suspected she was, anyway. And he was sorry for Mrs. Sharp. He was sure that Gwendolen would cast her off like an old coat when she became famous – like Mrs. Sharp, Cat had no doubt that Gwendolen would be famous.
The name ‘Harry Potter’, haunts Diana Wynne Jones’ novels. Whenever the charge that J.K. Rowling plagiarised ideas for her books from a number of different sources, Jones’ name is often mentioned, particularly in reference to The Chronicles of Chrestomanci series. It must be tiresome, as Jones is a fantastic writer and deserves much more than to be thought of as a footnote in Pottermania.
Charmed Life introduces us to a fantastical world somewhat similar to our own, where magic is a mainstream concern. The British government has appointed an enchanter, known as the Chrestomanci, to regulate and monitor the illegal use of magic.
Such matters are of little concern to the boy known as Cat. He lost his parents in a horrific drowning accident and only survived due to holding on to his sister Gwendolen while they were in the water. After all, she is a witch and so did not sink. Ever since, Cat has hung on to his sister ignoring her insults and condescension, while he tries to cover for her rudeness to other people. When the children receive word that the mighty Chrestomanci requests that they live with his family – after having discovered that their father was secretly in correspondence with him – Gwendolen is delighted, convinced that this is the next step in her path to becoming a powerful witch.
Cat tags along, grateful to be allowed to accompany his talented sibling.
However, Gwendolen discovers that life with the Chrestomanci’s family is not what she imagined. His wife is a homely, pleasant woman, not at all like the enchantress she imagined. His children are pudgy and naturally possess magical talents, but have no interest in the business of their father. Gwendolen is infuriated and begins plaguing the household with spells. The Chrestomanci pays no attention, which only increases on her wounded vanity. Cat is frozen by indecision, unable to prevent his sister from her campaign of terror; and intimidated by the aloof manner of his new guardian.
Then one morning Gwendolen performs a spell that threatens the balance of this world and several alternate Earths. Can the Chrestomanci himself undo the damage wrought by a single, powerful girl?
Wynne Jones not merely content to create a world where science has taken a back-seat to magic, then throws alternate worlds into the mix. For a children’s novel there are also quite serious themes, including child abuse and some sequences that might be considered quite scary, such as a conjured parade of undead bodies marching through a bedroom.
However, Charmed Life is also wonderfully placed and pleasant to read. It is revealed at one point that far from being terrorised by Gwendolen’s spells, many of the household are curious as to what she will dream up next. Whimsy and dark fantasy are combined to winning effect.
This book is a gorgeous introduction to a bright new world. I invite you to investigate further.