Mixed Magics

Being a completist, I had to include the four Chrestomanci short stories in my reread of the series by Diana Wynne Jones.  Fortunately, they’re conveniently gathered together in one book, Mixed Magics.  All four stories are excellent fun and well-worth the read!

“Warlock at the Wheel” – This story follows directly on Charmed Life, focusing on a very minor character from that novel.  The Willing Warlock comes off very badly in a confrontation with Chrestomanci, and decides that the answer is to travel to another world.  All seems to go according to plan–until the car he steals in this new world turns out to have an enormous dog and a very demanding child in the backseat.  Soon, the hapless Warlock is being bullied by the dog, the child, and even the car.

This is a funny little story that is definitely best read immediately after Charmed Life.  Personally, I would have had trouble making the connections otherwise!  The Warlock is a great character who intends to be villainous, but is rather too woebegone and put-upon to be very successful…

“The Sage of Theare” – In the very well-ordered world of Theare, the gods are horrified by a prophecy regarding the Sage of Dissolution.  They try to get rid of the recently-born Sage by sending him to another world, but Chrestomanci and company return him to his proper place.  When the Sage grows up, unaware of his destiny, Dissolution (and serious timeline muddling) are in store.

I can’t think too hard about this one, because it makes my head hurt.  There’s a lot of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” business going on, with events happening in reverse and the Sage on the hunt for himself…yeah, don’t ask, just read it!  Chrestomanci only has a small role, but all the same, his arrival at the Court of the Gods in his dressing gown is one of his best moments ever!

In terms of the larger timeline, I haven’t the slightest idea where this fits in among the others, as there isn’t much to place it in time!

“Stealer of Souls” – This story, on the other hand, belongs directly after Magicians of Caprona.  It’s the most Chrestomanci and Co. focused.  Cat (of Charmed Life) is deeply displeased by the arrival at Chrestomanci Castle of Tonino (of Magicians of Caprona), but they have to work together when they run afoul of a nasty magician intent on stealing souls.

I enjoyed seeing Cat again, and seeing Tonino from an outside perspective, after mostly being in his point of view in his book.  There are also some nice ties to The Lives of Christopher Chant, with a few of those characters returning.  And besides that, there’s a wonderfully sinister plot afoot, and some excellent mayhem and humor.

“Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream” – Carol possesses the wonderful ability to not only control her dreams, but to bottle, syndicate and sell them.  When she finds herself unable to dream her one-hundredth dream, her parents take her off to meet with Chrestomanci, who packed up his family after the previous short story for a vacation.  We follow Carol into her dream world, where we learn she has several principle characters, and they’ve gone on strike.

I love the whole concept of this one.  The idea of bottling dreams just fascinates me.  As a writer, I’m also intrigued by Carol’s struggles.  Essentially, she has writer’s block!  Even if most writers don’t have characters who literally mutiny, I think we all know what that feels like…

This is a quick little read with only the four short stories, but it has all the charm of Jones’ novels, and offers some nice extra pieces about the characters.  It feels sort of like a bonus to the rest of the series!

Don’t forget, you can win a signed copy of my fairy tale retelling, The Wanderers! Just put #WanderersGiveAway in your comment to enter.

Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:
Calmgrove
Aelia Reads
I am sad I couldn’t find many reviews…anyone else?

Buy it here: Mixed Magics

Feuding Magical Families in Caprona

The next book in Diana Wynne Jones’ splendid Chrestomanci series is The Magicians of Caprona. This is another one focused mostly not on Chrestomanci and his Castle, taking the action instead to Italian-influenced Caprona.

In Caprona, there are two great spell houses, the Casa Montana and the Casa Petrocchi, and the two families have been bitterly feuding for two centuries (although they both get on well with Chrestomanci). The story begins with family problems within the close-knit Casa Montana, like young Tonino’s apparent lack of magical aptitude, or the question of finding an appropriate suitor for Cousin Rosa. The situation escalates, with threats from neighboring city-states, and only hope to save Caprona—finding the true words to “The Angel of Caprona,” said to be given by an angel centuries before. Soon both families are on an increasingly urgent search for the song, while forces are massing for war and something sinister is going on at the Duke’s palace…

Here we see again one of Jones’ best types of protagonists, the earnest boy hero, seemingly unlikely to succeed, who discovers hidden abilities. I don’t mean to be dismissive by classifying—it’s a type of story that works very well! Tonino is a particularly appealing boy hero, considering his love of reading, and his talent of talking to cats.  Boss cat Benvenuto is also a delightful addition of the story–I do have this fondness for cats in books, you know! 🙂

I particularly enjoy the spell houses, with their huge clan of aunts and uncles and cousins all living companionably together, making magic and cheerfully getting into one another’s business. It’s warm and friendly and vivid. I also love their magic, which centers around sung spells. Singing off-key or muddling words can (and does) have disastrous consequences.

Chrestomanci has a relatively small role here, though he does make a flying appearance early in the crisis, so his arrival near the end isn’t quite a deus ex machina. Besides, he performs his usual role of not actually solving the crisis, just helping the lead characters to solve the crisis themselves.

I wouldn’t read this one first, because it could make Chrestomanci a somewhat confusing presence, but it’s stand-alone enough to read anywhere after Charmed Life.  I have just one more Chrestomanci novel left, plus a few short stories, which I plan to review soon too!

Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:
Masha du Toit
The Aroma of Books
Readers By Night
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Magicians of Caprona

Chrestomanci as Deus Ex Machina–sort of

I’ve continued my chronological reread of Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series with Witch Week, where the enchanter Chrestomanci plays a supporting (and somewhat deus ex machina) role.  But on the other hand, can his convenient arrival really be considered out of place if he’s the main character of the series?

Witch Week is the most independent book of the series.  Set in an alternate England where witches (with real magic) are hunted, arrested and burned, several children at a rather awful boarding school each come to realize that they have magic.  Their experiments and mishaps create escalating chaos until they’re in real danger of their lives…but fortunately they find a spell to summon Chrestomanci to their aid to unravel a problem of alternate worlds and mistakes in history.

I think this may be the first Diana Wynne Jones book I ever read, long ago before I ever knew it was part of a series.  I also think it was my first encounter with a reference to Guy Fawkes–and incidentally, when you don’t know who he is, you lose some of the impact of finding out that he successfully blew up Parliament in this world!

Witch Week is essentially a boarding school story with a bullying thread and a magical twist.  We get into the heads of several of the children, and Jones paints wonderful portraits of believable, complex individuals.  Charles and Nan stood out the most for me.  Charles is generally disliked in school, but mostly left alone because of the power of his evil eye glare.  Jones successfully makes him sympathetic, even though he really does mean that evil eye glare.  When he finds out he has magic, he’s perfectly willing to turn it on his enemies (with disastrous and often hilarious consequences).  I think I enjoy Charles because, much as I also like Jones’ typical earnest, well-meaning boy-hero, it’s fun to get one who isn’t well-meaning!

Nan is also a victim of the bullies, who are all too willing to accuse her of being a witch.  When she finds out she really does have magic, she’s completely surprised by the jolt of confidence it gives her–not because she does anything with it, but just by knowing that about herself.

Chrestomanci’s arrival towards the end of the book should have deus ex machina written all over it, but Jones manages more skillfully than that.  Chrestomanci does organize things towards their conclusion, but the children still play such an integral role that he doesn’t take over the narrative too badly.  And besides, if he’s really the main character of the series, perhaps he’s just asserting his proper place in things?

A note on the ending in white text to avoid spoilers…  If you’ve read the book, you know that the final conclusion completely alters the children’s lives, pasts and memories.  As far as I can recall, I always accepted the ending on previous reads; this time it struck me as rather an unaddressed tragedy.  Even if their lives are made objectively better, they still had to lose the people they had been through their previous experiences.  It’s like dying to allow another version of yourself to live, which seems like a major existential question that is ignored.  But I suppose we have Doctor Who for that discussion…

I think you could do worse than to start the series here, because it’s so independent of the others.  Although knowing who Guy Fawkes (and Chrestomanci!) are would probably add to the book.  🙂  In any order, this is another fun read, with a more bleak setting but a lot of humor and excitement to set against the gray background.

Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:
Reading the End
Readers By Night
Just Book Reading
Anyone else?

Buy it here: Witch Week

Calling on Chrestomanci

I recently reread The Lives of Christopher Chant, and have continued my chronological rereading of Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series with Conrad’s Fate and Charmed Life.  Double review today!

Conrad’s Fate mostly focuses on 12-year-old Conrad of the title, whose magician uncle has told him he is cursed with a terrible Fate, and must go up to Stallery Castle and kill somewhere there to free himself of it.  Uncle magicians seem to never be a good thing, and all the sugar-coating in the world can’t put a very good face on a mission like that.  Conrad successfully obtains a servant job at the castle, but of course nothing goes smoothly after that.  He does make a friend of fellow-servant Christopher “Smith,” who is at Stallery Castle looking for his missing friend Millie.

This is a fun book to read chronologically after The Lives of Christopher Chant, because it fills in (some of) the missing link between the boy Christopher and the adult Chrestomanci of the other books.  Here Christopher is 15, and recognizably somewhere in transition between the two.  I would have quite liked to meet Christopher at around 20, to fill in a little more, but alas, we never got that book.

SPOILER WARNING: I think this book suffered in just one small way from being written after many of the others in the series.  At the end, Christopher and Millie’s wedding is tossed off as a by-the-way, which makes perfect sense if read after all the other books, where their marriage is a foregone conclusion.  Read in chronological order, it feels like there should be more to that story! SPOILERS DONE

Christopher and Millie aside, most of the book focuses on Conrad, who is remarkably likable for having come to the castle with murderous intent.  He’s so unhappy about the idea of killing someone, you see, and he’s so terribly earnest in all other ways.  He’s not a stock character by any means, but he is another of a collection of well-meaning, slightly inept boy heroes who populate Jones’ books.  They’re always such fun to read about, though!

I happened to be reading this at the same time that Downton Abbey was airing, which made for some interesting thought-connections.  Stallery Castle in many ways feels very like Downton Abbey…except with magic!  Magic starts running amok and disrupting the neat order of the servants hall, with disastrous results–of course!

Charmed Life has its own boy hero, Eric “Cat” Chant, who is very thoroughly under the thumb of his erratic, witch-in-training sister, Gwendolen.  Cat and Gwendolen’s parents died in a boating accident, and they’re taken in first by a local witch and then by the mysterious Chrestomanci.  Gwendolen does not like life at Chrestomanci Castle in the slightest, and kicks up a series of magical pranks, culminating in changing places (sort of) with Janet, her double from another world.

Somewhere deep in my subconscious I tagged “Gwendolen” as an unpleasant name, and it may be because of this book.  She’s a nasty piece of work–but she also provides much of the excitement and entertainment of the story.  Cat is perfectly sweet and likable, but he’s also extremely reactionary for most of the book.  Chrestomanci punishes him at one point because he didn’t try to stop Gwendolen from causing trouble, and there’s some valid justification in that.

We’re mostly in Cat’s point of view so I understand how he feels about Gwendolen and why he doesn’t take a more active role…but I still kind of want to shake him.  Although, to be fair, I mostly feel that way when I think back on the book.  When I was actually reading it, I didn’t give that much thought, because the crises and the humor come fast and furious and I didn’t do much analysis of Cat’s actions.

This was the first book  of the series written, and there are some mysteries lost by reading it later.  When you know who and what Chrestomanci is, it clears up a lot of questions Cat has (and probably the reader is supposed to have).  Christopher of the previous two books is Chrestomanci here, and on the opposite side of the order-to-read question, I did have fun spotting little hints and clues that were expanded so much more in The Lives of Christopher Chant.

And Chrestomanci is, of course, an absolute delight as a character, so suave and sophisticated and vague in a terribly incisive way.  Not to mention his fantastical dressing gowns!  Just one representative quote on the character: “Chrestomanci smiled and swept out of the room like a very long procession of one person.”

Chronologically-read or publishing-order-read, these are delightful books in a delightful series.  With three down and several to go, I’m not sure I have a favorite yet, and none have been disappointing.  I look forward to the rest!

Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:

Conrad’s Fate
Chris White Writes
A Journey Through Pages
Jean Little Library

Charmed Life
The Rhubosphere
The Book Smugglers
Readers By Night

Anyone else?

Buy them here: Conrad’s Fate and Charmed Life

The Lives (and Deaths) of Christopher Chant

Lives of Christopher ChantOne reread project I didn’t get to in 2013 was Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series.  I’ve read them all but out of order and at widely-spaced intervals so (not unlike The Great Khan Adventure) I decided I’d like to put them all together in chronological order.  I got started with the earliest, The Lives of Christopher Chant.

Christopher’s life could be rather bleak, with his wealthy, absentee parents and string of unfriendly governesses.  But Christopher has a secret—when he goes to bed, he can step out of his body, go around a corner, and enter The Place Between.  From there he visits the Almost Anywheres, a series of worlds very unlike his own, and each other.  When Christopher’s Uncle Ralph learns about his traveling, and especially his ability to bring solid objects back with him, Uncle Ralph gets Christopher involved in a series of experiments–with, naturally, disastrous consequences.  Eventually we learn that Christopher is a nine-lived enchanter, which proves very fortunate, as his adventures in other worlds keep losing him lives.

I think this book helps satisfy an itch I’ve had ever since reading The Magician’s Nephew, with its wonderful and utterly under-utilized Wood Between the Worlds.  The Place Between is very different in tone but very similar in function, and Christopher (and the reader) gets to visit far more worlds than Diggory and Polly did.  I’d still like more of that, but it was delightful anyway.

Christopher is a compelling boy hero who’s likeable but flawed as well.  He learns and grows as the book goes on, in the best way of complex characters, coming to realizations about how he treats people and where his strengths lie.

Among the supporting characters, the stars are the Goddess and Throgmorten.  The Goddess, otherwise known as the Living Asheth, is a girl Christopher meets in another world.  She and Christopher are on a nice parallel journey of finding out what they want in life, and how to make it happen for themselves, instead of being pushed around by circumstances.  Throgmorten is an Asheth Temple cat, fantastically valuable and fantastically bad-tempered in a highly entertaining way.

The book abounds with other magicians, good and bad and often incredibly strange.  Diana Wynne Jones has a wonderful ability for whimsy and humor in her magical stories, which is on full display here.  All that whimsy and humor is woven around a clever and complex magical system and universe structure.  Much is explored and, equally, it feels clear there’s much more still left…which is nice, when there’s several more books in the series!

This book functions as a kind of prequel, with most of the later books featuring an adult Christopher.  I read the books so spread out before that I’m sure there are lots of connecting lines I haven’t drawn, which I look forward to as I continue through the books…

Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/

Other reviews:
Books and Chocolate
Eyrie.org
Family Reads
Reading the End
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Lives of Christopher Chant