One of my favorite scenes in children’s literature involves a young boy who doesn’t yet know he’s an enchanter with nine lives, hauled off by his overbearing father to find out whether or not he can do magic. Christopher is made to try all sorts of spells by the intimidating Dr. Pawson, all to no avail. Then, suddenly –
“EMPTY YOUR POCKETS, CHANT!”
Eh? thought Christopher. But he did not dare disobey. He began hurriedly unloading the pockets of his Norfolk jacket: Uncle Ralph’s sixpence which he always kept, a shilling of his own, a grayish handkerchief, a note from Oneir about algebra, and then he was down to shaming things like string and rubber bands and furry toffees…
Dr. Pawson instructs Christopher to take out his silver tiepin and tooth brace as well. (As it turns out, Christopher’s silver allergy is what’s causing his problems.) Then, Christopher looks into the mirror he’s supposed to be levitating, and tries once again.
Once more he looked into it, once more said the words, and once more raised his arms aloft. And as his arms wen up, he felt something come loose with them—come loose with a vengeance.
Everything in the room went upwards except Christopher, the mirror, the tiepin, the tooth-brace, and the money. These slid to the floor as the table surged upwards, but were collected by the carpet which came billowing up after it. Christopher hastily stepped off the carpet and stood watching everything soar around him—all the clocks, several tables, chairs, rugs, pictures, vases, ornaments, and Dr. Pawson too. He and his armchair both went up, majestically, like a balloon, and bumped against the ceiling. The ceiling bellied upwards and the chandelier plastered itself sideways against it. From above came crashings, shrieks, and an immense airy grinding. Christopher could feel that the roof of the house had come off and was on its way to the sky, pursued by the attics.
It’s one of the most liberating scenes I’ve ever read, and it always makes me grin broadly upon rereading, especially after all the hardships Christopher has had to endure. He’s soon taken off to a castle that overlooks a rather busybodyish village, where (against his will, at first) he trains to become the next Chrestomanci.
“Chrestomanci?” you say? Well. I’m glad you asked.
I first encountered Diana Wynne Jones’ Chronicles of Chrestomanci when I was in fifth grade. I had no idea what these odd little books were when I picked up Witch Week and The Lives of Christopher Chant for the first time; I only knew that they were strangely enthralling, and unlike any fantasies I’d read before. The easiest comparison might be Harry Potter – there are wizards, castles, even a magic school in one book – but that isn’t quite right, and I didn’t put the two series in the same category in my head even then (although I love Harry Potter easily as much as I love the Chrestomancis.) Jones’ stories were written many years before Rowling’s, and her tone is both more understated and much more acerbic. There’s a devilish complexity to Jones’ Related Worlds that is highly unusual for children’s literature, coupled with a kind of bullheaded common sense that had me nodding in fierce agreement. I was addicted immediately.
There are seven books total in the series, but it can only be called a “series” in the loosest sense—that is, each book serves as a kind of companion to the others, taking place in utterly different worlds, with only Chrestomanci (the grown-up version of Christopher!) as the thread that ties them together. Like the Narnia books, there’s a vague order that people think you ought to read them in: Charmed Life, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Mixed Magics (a book of short stories), Conrad’s Fate, and finally The Pinhoe Egg.
Personally, I’d advise not reading them in order. There are a couple (namely The Magicians of Caprona and Conrad’s Fate) that are a bit harder to get your teeth into, and it’s always easier once you have a sense of the world you’re about to encounter—or in this case, worlds.
The lynchpin of the series is Jones’ own brand of multiverse theory, which was the first time I’d ever encountered that idea. The main premise is that there are many universes that have branched off at momentous occasions in history, leaving them dramatically different from each other. (Witch Week, for example, is set in a world where Guy Fawkes managed to blow up the Houses of Parliament.) Most people have doubles in each universe—people who they would have become in each parallel world. If you have fewer doubles than most, all those potential lives get concentrated in you alone, enabling you to become an enchanter. If you have no doubles at all—as we find out is the case with Christopher—you’re a nine-lifed enchanter, an occurrence that hardly ever comes about.
And that means that Christopher, and people throughout history like him, have had no choice but to become the next Chrestomanci, a government position that is responsible for making sure the magic in all the Related Worlds behaves itself, as they’re the only people with enough power to do it. They’re summoned by saying “Chrestomanci” three times, and then—no matter what they happen to be doing or wearing (which frequently ends up being lavish dressing gowns, in Christopher’s case)—they’re hauled off to whoever called them, resulting in all sorts of strange adventures.
What makes the series for me is Christopher himself, although I’m going to call him Chrestomanci from here on out, as that’s what he’s referred to in all books but The Lives of Christopher Chant and Conrad’s Fate. We get to see his development from a small boy who finds that pretending to look vague often gives him a much-needed advantage, to an arrogant teenager determined to rescue his best friend, to the dapper, dressing-gowned enchanter who bursts into action at the end of all the other books, elusively bewildered towards everyone except those whom he trusts, and scheming far more than anyone could tell from the surface. He’s a fascinating character. I spend a huge proportion of my rereads trying to figure him out, trying to catch him plotting, trying to beat him at his own game since I already know the ending. He always manages to be a little bit tricky, a little bit out of reach. He’s without a doubt one of my favorite characters of all time.
That’s not to say that Jones’ other characters in the Chronicles aren’t just as brilliantly nuanced. Cat in Charmed Life, for example, is one of her most endearing heroes, and also one of the only canonically autistic characters I’ve read in modern children’s fantasy. I have a soft spot for Angelica Petrocchi, the fiery witch-girl whose spells always go wrong in The Magicians of Caprona. All of the students in Witch Week deserve recognition, from the miserable Charles Morgan to the wry, clever Nirupam Singh. And don’t even get me started on Millie, a character who starts off as a Living Goddess destined for sacrifice but who manages to escape through brilliant means. She goes on to become a talented enchantress obsessed with old English boarding school novels, and eventually marries Christopher, whom she scoffs at for his dressing gown fixation. I love her so much.
I can’t recommend this series enough, to adults as well as (if not more than) children. There’s enough complexity and carefully twisted logic to keep your brain busy for days. The best part is that, though Diana Wynne Jones unfortunately died several years ago (don’t smoke, guys), there’s so much room for discussion and new ideas in the enormous world she created. I’ve been reading her work for more than half my life, and I still haven’t run out of things to think about.