March Magics: The Lives of Christopher Chant

Did I ever tell you that The Lives of Christopher Chant was the first Diana Wynne Jones novel I ever loved? And did I ever tell you that when the seventh Harry Potter came out and I was feeling disappointed in Dumbledore, I went back and read The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life and Witch Week and Conrad’s Fate to experience a non-disappointing omniscient wizard man?

March Magics is upon us, hosted by the wonderful Kristen at We Be Reading, and I am celebrating this week with a reread of the book that made me certain (at age, like, twelve) that Diana Wynne Jones was going to become one of my favorite authors.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is not the book you’re supposed to read first in the Chrestomanci series, but it’s possibly the one I would recommend you to read first. It’s this or Witch Week, for sure. Our hero, Christopher, who will one day grow up to be the Chrestomanci of maddening vagueness and extravagant dressing gowns, is a little kid who walks through the multiverse in his dreams. When his Uncle Ralph discovers this, he enlists Christopher to do some experiments for him, and Christopher — who worships Uncle Ralph — agrees.

The Lives of Christopher Chant

The Lives of Christopher Chant does this narrative trick to which Diana Wynne Jones is very prone, where the child protagonist fundamentally misunderstands important things about himself, the world around him, and the choices he’s making. Some of these things are clear to the reader: If it weren’t immediately obvious that Uncle Ralph is a bad person who is taking advantage of Christopher’s unique skills, we could figure it out from Tacroy, who guides Christopher on his journeys through the dream world / multiverse. But other revelations were as much of a surprise to my young self as they were to Christopher, and a reminder — Diana Wynne Jones excels at these — that the world we see isn’t the only world there is.

Also, if you are the sort of person who cares about this, The Lives of Christopher Chant features probably my favorite of the Diana Wynne Jones cat. His name is Throgmorton.

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.