Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life (1977)
Harper Collins, 2007
Chrestomanci Book 1

You’ve probably heard it too: Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series is better than Harry Potter. And, yes, that it came first (so, not to be confused with the myriad of Potter-knock-offs). Which it did and, if the first book is anything by which to measure, it *is*, yes, even better than the Potter series.

It was originally published in 1977, when I was a heavy Narnia user, so I have no idea how I missed the series. And more’s the pity as I loved it as an adult, so I’m sure I would have devoured it as a child if I’d been closer to Cat and Gwendolen’s ages than to  Mr. Nostrum’s and Chrestomanci’s.

Right off it matched my girlhood predilection for stories about orphans: Cat and Gwendolen’s parents sink beneath the waters when a paddle steamer goes down.

The story begins: “Cat Grant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.” Two paragraphs later, the steamer sinks and the children are alone in the world.

Normally I preferred my childhood stories to be about orphans who were alone, truly alone, before they discover someone, a kindred spirit, who makes things bearable (think Anne of Green Gables or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase), but it doesn’t take long for readers to realize that his sister isn’t much comfort or use to Cat.

Indeed, she causes a great deal of trouble with her magic, for the people around her, including Cat, and for herself (which is, for a time, quite amusing). Eventually, however, in a scene which does date the series somewhat, Gwendolen finally pushes her not-so-magickal luck and is soundly punished for her transgressions, in contrast to polite requests to cease and desist that she has routinely flouted; the incorrigible mischief-maker is spanked, spanked, spanked and spanked some more, and even Cat gets a good slap, just because he didn’t do anything to stop his sister’s shenanigans.

For the most part, though, Charmed Life is simply charming. It’s filled with all the ingredients that I loved in the English fantasy tales I read as a girl: vicars and sweet shops, cucumber sandwiches and éclairs, eiderdown and tin soldiers, and talismans and spells.

And yes, there are many connections that a reader can draw between Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life and the Harry Potter series (figures in stained-glass windows come to life, warnings are whispered about “You Know Who”, there are penalties associated with casting spells under certain circumstances — the division between those capable and those who are not being stark– and there are hijinks in the dining-hall). But only having read one of the Chrestomanci books, I can’t really say much about that.

Still, what I can say for sure is that I want to read more. What a wonder-filled tale! Which book of hers would you recommend that I read next?

Is this a favourite of yours as well? Or do you have another? Or are you still waiting to try her too?

PS Thanks to Jenny’s Diana Wynne Jones week (which was actually at the beginning of August) for the encouragement to finally make time for this series. Previously I had only read The Homeward Bounders and it hadn’t called out “more” as loudly as this one did.