Charmed Life is the first instalment of Jones’ seven part ‘Chrestomanci’ series, but it can be read as a standalone novel. Charmed Life is set in a world parallel to our own, where witches, warlocks and wizards abound; it is a fantasy world of magic and wonder, set against a vaguely victoriana steampunk backdrop.
After their parents die in a tragic steamboat accident, Eric ‘Cat’ Chant and his elder sister Gwendolen - a talented witch in the making - are left in the care of their neighbour and ‘Certified Witch’ Mrs. Sharp. She notices Gwendolen’s aptitude for magic and arranges lessons for her, whilst Cat can only observe his sister become more powerful every day since he cannot do any magic at all. Ambitious Gwendolen soon masters basic magic and, aspiring to take over the world, she is delighted when she and her talentless brother are swept off to live in Chrestomanci castle, home of the powerful magician Chrestomanci. Gwendolen is bewildered however when she learns that she is not allowed to perform magic and that her witchcraft lessons will cease until further notice. This stepback does not quell her ambitions, but rather makes her more determined; mayhem ensues and Cat stands by, powerless to stop her.
The reader views the world, events and characters of the novel through the eyes of the protagonist, naive and innocent Cat. This means that there is a distinct air of mystery surrounding Chrestomanci and his castle, since for much of the novel a lot is hidden from Cat. This device kept me guessing and intrigued as to what was going on and how the story would pan out; why had Chrestomanci invited them both to live in the castle if he refused to teach Gwendolen magic? What is Gwendolen up to? Why can’t they venture into Chrestomanci’s garden? These questions and others make for a compelling read. Cat is OK as far as protagonists go, but he is nothing particularly special either; the narrative feels vaguely fairy-tale, and is funny and charming. It’s a bit annoying how Cat clings to Gwendolen like a limpet, allowing her to boss him around all the time. This part of the tale is also pretty heartbreaking though, as it is clear not only to the reader but also to the other residents of Chrestomanci castle that Cat’s devotion to his conniving sister is not reciprocated.
Gwendolen is a horrible young girl, and is truly unlikeable; at times I wanted to slap her. She is mean, selfish, arrogant and completely heartless. She takes advantage of Cat’s loyalty to her by treating him like a servant rather than a loving little brother, who happily panders to her every request due to her being his only remaining relative. The other characters are enjoyable and fun. There’s Chrestomanci and his kind wife Millie, their mischievous children Julia and Roger - with whom Gwendolen butts heads several times - among others.
Charmed Life is chock full of magic; Gwendolen performs several nasty spells to spite her fellow castle dwellers and get the attention of Chrestomanci, and Julia tries her best to combat her. Of course there is more magnificent magic performed by stronger wizards such as Chrestomanci himself. There is also a grumpy violin-cat, a were-tiger and a sweet little talking dragon.
One drawback perhaps is the lack of detail and explanation as to how the magic works in this world, as at times it doesn’t seem to follow any particular rules. I suspect, however, that this might be covered in the later books of the Chrestomanci series.
Charmed Life is a really entertaining and inventive book, full of delight, warmth and amusement. It isn’t quite as good as Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, which has a better defined protagonist and a slightly stronger story, nonetheless I loved Charmed Life; it is a brilliant, mystifying, funny and delightful read that all ages can enjoy.
My other Diana Wynne Jones reviews: