Chrestomanci Chrestomanci Chrestomanci

I can’t get any posting done for heaven’s sake!  I have finished and not reviewed five books I was planning to review.  There are two more books sitting atop the bookshelf by my bed, nearly finished but I don’t want to actually finish them because then I’d have seven books that I was planning to review that I haven’t reviewed yet.  Peter and Max and The Book of Secrets will just have to wait.  I AM ONLY HUMAN.

In a frenzy of love for Diana Wynne Jones, I fetched out Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Conrad’s Fate – they are the ones that feature Chrestomanci as a main character, and I call them the C books, loftily ignoring at least six other books with C-words in the title – and read them all very fast, gobble gobble gobble.  They are not my favorites of all her books, but I was exactly in the mood for them.

The Chrestomanci books were the first DWJ books I picked up after finding The Tough Guide to Fantasyland amusing. and I felt so let down by them.  From The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, I was expecting that same kind of thing, high fantasy that played with high fantasy clichés.  I was expecting, essentially, The Dark Lord of Derkholm.  But what’s good about Diana Wynne Jones is that she manages to write oodles of YA fantasy novels without ever doing the same thing twice.

Virtue though this is on her part, it has led to some pretty severe frustrations on mine.  I read Deep Secret expecting it to have the same Edwardian-but-with-magic setting, only to abandon it in a huff when I found it was closer to being urban fantasy; once I grew to love Deep Secret, I got mad at its sort-of sequel The Merlin Conspiracy for being more country and wildernessy.  I was cross with The Homeward Bounders for not being Power of Three, and then cross with Archer’s Goon for not being The Homeward Bounders, and I am not quite over being cross with The Ogre Downstairs for not being Archer’s Goon.  I may never forgive Hexwood for not being Deep Secret.  Why isn’t Hexwood Deep Secret, anyway?

Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Conrad’s Fate are the three books that are sort of about being Chrestomanci.  (And maybe The Pinhoe Egg but I have not read it enough times to be sure.)  In Charmed Life, orphan siblings Cat and Gwendolen come to live at Chrestomanci Castle, Gwendolen seeking to carry out the rather nasty plans of her magic tutors, and Cat simply wanting to be looked after.  This does not prove a good desire for Cat, and the book turns on his claiming agency – not at Chrestomanci’s behest, or to help Gwendolen, but because he wants to manage his own life himself.

The Lives of Christopher Chant tips us backward to Chrestomanci’s youth, when he is a young boy called Christopher with useless parents and a penchant for traveling to alternate worlds (which he calls “Anywheres”).  (Everyone in DWJ’s books has useless parents.  Even the nice parents are useless.)  Christopher’s shady uncle Ralph employs him to bring things back from the other worlds, which Christopher does because he admires Uncle Ralph desperately.  As the reader can see from the beginning, Ralph is Up to No Good, but he is dashing and has a winning smile; whereas the old man Chrestomanci that Christopher has to go live with?  Old and cranky.  So this one’s about Christopher being slung between these two opposing forces in the world of magic, and figuring out where he wants to align himself.

Then Conrad’s Fate is set in a whole different world, one of Christopher’s Anywheres, more properly called Series Seven.  Conrad works in a bookshop near the grand mansion of Stallery, and in Stallery there are magicians who keep changing the world slightly.  The magicians in Conrad’s town realize that Conrad has an Evil Fate left over from a previous life, a Fate that can only be expiated if he kills the person he was supposed to kill in his last life.  Conrad is to take a place as a servant at Stallery in order to kill the person, and get rid of his Evil Fate.  While there, he meets Christopher, an arrogant, charming enchanter from another world, who is taking a place as a servant at Stallery too, in order to find a friend of his that’s gone missing.

This is my point about Diana Wynne Jones.  Even when she’s writing in the same world for several books, Diana Wynne Jones takes the world and swivels it, and gives us it again from a different angle, so that the books in the series end up being very different.  We see Chrestomanci as his adult self in Charmed Life, terrifying and vague and polite; we see him as a child, from his own perspective, in Lives of Christopher Chant; and we see him at a halfway point in Conrad’s Fate, through the eyes of a kid who doesn’t, necessarily, appreciate Christopher’s high-handed approach to life.

What I’m trying to say is this: If you have tried DWJ and only liked one of her books, you may be suffering from the same expectations gap that plagues me every time I read a new one of her books. The key may be to start her books having absolutely no expectations at all. In fact it was foolish of you even to read this review.

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20 thoughts on “Chrestomanci Chrestomanci Chrestomanci

  1. (Everyone in DWJ’s books has useless parents. Even the nice parents are useless.)
    Aha! I shall argue that point with you there: in Archer’s Goon the parents are very useful, if somewhat on the sideline of the plot. Think of the mom manhandling the Goon in the beginning. Think of that thing the dad does at the end that I’ve forgotten the details of– wait! He writes the story that shoots off the bad siblings. Extremely useful, that.

    For the rest of your post: totally agree. Especially this: This is my point about Diana Wynne Jones. Even when she’s writing in the same world for several books, Diana Wynne Jones takes the world and swivels it, and gives us it again from a different angle, so that the books in the series end up being very different. 😀

    Although I still can’t make myself reread Conrad’s Fate, that’s how much I hated it. And I can’t get through the first three chapters of The Merlin Conspiracy even after trying four times.

    That’s very irritating for me, because I normally immediately love DWJ’s books, even if I end them feeling confused (Hexwood) or strange (Fire and Hemlock) or conflicted (Castle in the Air). I feel a bit like I’m failing her, you know? Maybe I should just reread them all. Although I need my own copy of Archer’s Goon and everything else besides. :U

    • Okay, see, I know the Archer’s Goon parents do some useful things, so useless isn’t a good adjective. But they aren’t very good parents! Quentin is totally irresponsible – who stops paying taxes?? – and Catriona leans far too heavily on Howard to take care of Awful. I hate it when she tells him that he’s the one she relies on because she can’t depend on Quentin. They’re better than the average, certainly. DWJ apparently had fairly uninterested parents that wouldn’t give them any books, so there’s certainly a good explanation for why she writes parents this way.

      What didn’t you like about Conrad’s Fate? I thought it was so great to see Christopher at a halfway point between his young self and his scary grown-up self. Plus, I liked all the stuff about how to be a servant. The magic part of the plotline wasn’t as good as some of DWJ’s other books, but I thought the rest of the book was strong enough that it didn’t bother me. Merlin Conspiracy is not a favorite of mine. I like the elephant though!

  2. I think I learned how to appreciate DWJ’s storytelling after reading the sequel, sort of, to Howl’s Moving Castle. While I expected the story of Sophie and Howl to continue, from the first page alone I realized it wasn’t exactly Sophie and Howl’s story (even if both were there).

    So yes, two books with DWJ and I already let go of the thought that one book is like the other. Same with the Chrestomanci series which I loved (even though I kept waiting for Chrestomanci to appear in Witch Week and when he finally did it was like uh, “There you are, finally!”)

    I still have a lot of DWJ backlog but I did enjoy most of the books you mentioned here save for one. I can’t get past the first few pages of the first book of The Dalemark Quartet. That after taking a quiz (Which DWJ Character Are You?) with the result: You are Moril.

    Oh well.

    • I suppose it was just that I never knew what to expect, but I still developed expectations going in. I loved Castle in the Air the first time though! Abdullah was so sweet!

      Moril is from the Dalemark Quartet – far from my favorites. I’m going to read them again anyway, just because it’s been a while, but they’re definitely not her best effort. The Dark Lord of Derkholm, on the other hand, is great. Took me several tries but I thoroughly love it now (and the sequel).

  3. Your last paragraph cracked me up. I have a LOT of DWJ still to read- haven’t read any of the Chrestomanci books yet! Must get on that. But without expectations, of course.

    • Oh, lucky you with many books still to read! I would tell you what one to read next, but I’m afraid I would create expectations. (But, Deep Secret is very good and so are the Chrestomanci books.)

  4. I agree mostly about the useless parents. It annoys me. I do find some exceptions, though. Ann’s parents in Hexwood (which I like, and don’t see why you expected it to be deep secret anyway) And I know Charmain’s mum in House of Many Ways had her limitations, but overall, I thought Charmain’s parents weren’t bad.

    • What did Ann’s parents do that was useful? I don’t remember them doing anything! And the parents in The Ogre Downstairs spent most of the book being perfectly useless and ineffectual. Hrmph.

  5. Ah, poor dear, you really were unlucky in the DWJ reading order department, with the expectations and all! I was lucky to start my DWJ odyssey at a low-book-buying-budget library where all the children’s books were kind of old (her 70’s ones) then traveling to the nearby town with the better library that had her 80’s books as a teenager. And the rest I read pretty much as a grownup, after college.

    I think the expectations thing is easier to get around if you read them more or less in the order she wrote them, cause then you are tagging along with her on her own journey of ideas. I do remember Fire and Hemlock totally threw me for a loop the first time I read it (age 14 or so), but when I read it aloud to spouse as an adult, I thought it was one of her best, so it’s also what you bring to them. Age makes a difference. And you are so right about her never doing the same thing twice.

    I notice you don’t mention the Dalemark books, Dogsbody, or Eight Days of Luke. Are those still ahead of you? I’m jealous!

    What are your favorites so far?

    • I’m pretty sure I’ve read all her books by now except for Changeover – I wish they’d put it back into print! The Dalemark Quartet are my least favorites of her books, though admittedly I haven’t read them as often as I have some of her others. My favorites are….hmmm….Fire and Hemlock is definitely my most favorite of all, and I really really love Deep Secret and Archer’s Goon. And Howl’s Moving Castle.

      What are your favorites?

      • Hard. It’s a matter of the ones I got the most excited about the first time I read them, and the ones I think the most about now, and say, “wow, that was a good book.” The first-read memories get mixed up with the lingering ones. I’ll say Homeward Bounders, Charmed Life, Lives of Christopher Chant, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Cart and Cwidder (very first DWJ I read), if pressed. I didn’t like the two newer Dalemark books as well as the older two.

      • I know what you mean. The books that were like a cymbal-crash to read the first time are the ones that often stick with me most, even when I can see that other books may be technically better. The Homeward Bounders may be one of my favorites too, now you mention it – always makes me cry!

  6. Lol! Well I’m very glad I read the review, and I still want to read these books, as well as lots of others by DWJ, and when my son was little he was rather fond of variety and so the ever changing landscape of her novels was a good place to be. We adored Archer’s Goon (although I have never quite figured out the ending, not that it matters) and The Ogre Downstairs and another called, umm, Wilkin’s Tooth or something similar. Oh and Howl’s Moving Castle we loved, too. In fact just writing this makes me feel I should read something by her now. What did you think of A Sudden Wild Magic? I think I have that somewhere.

    • A Sudden Wild Magic is one of those books that it took me a lot of tries to start enjoying. It’s one of the few books she wrote that’s clearly for grown-ups, but somehow it’s still a good bit sillier than a lot of her books for kids. I mean that she’s being deliberately a bit silly, where she’s often more serious in her books for younger people. It’s rather like Deep Secret – or at least, when I finally came to like it, it was the time I read it straight away after reading Deep Secret.

  7. Pingback: Diana Wynne Jones: A Collection of Mini Reviews | Iris on Books

  8. Popping by to post here because I’m currently in the middle of Charmed Life & feeling very cross with Christopher-Chrestomanci, who has just boxed Cat’s ears for not stopping Gwendolin–after spending quite some time not-stopping Gwendolin himself.

    I know later he’s going to be all “We were hoping you would trust us.”

    Having just finished Lives of Christopher Chant wherein he himself had to deal with a less-than-helpful mentor, I’m wondering why/how he expects his own behavior to lead to any good results in this case.

    I’m not used to being cross with Chrestomanci!

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