When I was about twelve I read all I could find of Diana Wynne Jones’ books – of course in those days she had not written so many, so it was easier – and loved them: Wilkins’ Tooth, The Ogre Downstairs, Dogsbody, Eight Days of Luke, Power of Three, Charmed Life and Cart and Cwidder (I don’t think I remember the other Dalemark book, Drowned Ammet). But I confess I had not really kept up with her later work – I think I’ve read only Archer’s Goon, The Homeward Bounders, Deep Secret and most recently The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Anyway, when I did my what-shall-I-read-in-2010 poll, the three Chrestomanci books on my shelves were clearely ahead of all but Guy Gavriel Kay and The Wee Free Men. So I decided to get into them by rereading Charmed Life first.
I remember vividly the Jackanory reading of Charmed Life, shortly after its publication in 1977 when I was about ten; investigation reveals that the reader was Sorcha Cusack and the illustrations by Lorraine Calaora (I particularly remember a picture of Fiddle the cat). I also remember enjoying the book first time round thirty years ago, though finding it rather creepier than the Jackanory version (which I guess may have toned down some of Gwendolyn’s nasty moments). I am glad to say that the magic remains: Cat and Gwen are orphans, trying to navigate an vividly realised adult world which is rather like our Edwardian era with magic as an accepted if not always trusted way of life; Cat is the viewpoint character, so we only gradually appreciate how Gwendolyn’s nastiness to him actually goes much deeper than normal family tension. The other great thing about the book (apart from the character of Chrestomanci himself) is of course the concept of parallel worlds, where history has gone differently but almost everyone still lives there, if with different names and personalities. I loved rereading it.
Next in publication order (which apparently is the recommended reading order rather than internal chronology) is The Magicians of Caprona, set in an Italy which remains a union of city-states (in the same world as Charmed LifeRomeo and Juliet, in the two great magical families locked in bitter feuding, is fairly obvious but there is a lot else going on here, with several pairs of children of each family (and their cats) allying against a more powerful enemy, which is exploiting the adults’ blind spots to try and destroy the city. There’s a great sense of architecture as well as a good moral lesson about not being afraid to define your own individuality. I was a little less convinced by the portrayal of the family dynamics here, normally one of DWJ’s strong points.
I did notice that the evil antagonists in both books are powerful magical women, which I think is also true in Wilkins’ Tooth and Dogsbody