I was reminded of Diana Wynne Jones when reading Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats. I had a vague recollection of knowing her name, and decided to go check out her work. It turns out, I was a huge Jones fan as a child and just didn’t know it. I read several of her books in elementary and middle school, and aside from my father reading Lord of the Rings to me, Jones’ work was one of my first real introductions to fantasy.
My library had The Chronicles of Chrestomanci on the shelf, so I went and picked it up. I vaguely remembered the beginning of “Charmed Life;” the thing that stuck out the most in my memory was the violin turning into the cat, but almost 25 years is plenty of time to forget the nuance and worldbuilding and general fun and beauty of Jones’ work, so in many ways, it was like coming to the books for the first time.
In “Charmed Life,” Eric (Cat) Chant has a sister, Gwendolyn, who’s scary good at magic. So good, that he’s able to latch onto her and survive the boat accident that kills their parents. As she goes about her magic lessons and he tries very hard to be good at ‘something,’ the children find out that they’re relatives to the great Chrestomanci, and he comes to take them to his castle and raise them as his wards. Gwendolyn hates living there, and her antics eventually reveal that Cat is actually destined to be the next Chrestomanci due to his having 9 lives.
In “The Lives of Christopher Chant,” we learn all about the Chrestomanci from “Charmed Life” as a young boy. Christopher can dreamwalk to the Place Between, and can visit all the other worlds attached to his, but no one but his uncle knows he can do it. His uncle begins sending him on ‘experiments’ to each of the areas with his spirit friend, Tacroy, and they become more and more dangerous each year. But when he wakes up after a fatal accident as if nothing happened, other people begin to realize he’s got 9 lives and needs to be kept away from his uncle.
Both stories are told with humor and wonderful world-building. Jones is able to transport us right into the Related Worlds and through using children as her main characters we’re able to transcend the many different facets of this world in ways we wouldn’t with the adult characters. Both Cat and Christopher are curious, questioning, and erudite which means they get into a lot of trouble that brings humorous character building while also showing us the world in fun ways. Jones’ female characters are also all active participants in their own plotlines, particularly Millie in “The Lives of Christopher Chant,” without being reduced to romantic attractions or ‘helpmate’ ciphers.
There were definitely parts of these stories that seem Potter-esque, and I wonder if Rowling was inspired by Jones’ world when writing Harry Potter. Regardless, Jones did it first, and did it so spectacularly well that 25 years later, these books were just as fun and enjoyable to me now as they were when I was 10. I’ve been recommending them to everyone I know who has tweens.
I loved going back into these childhood tales so much that my goal for CBR 14 is reading Jones’ complete body of work.