The Lives of Christopher Chant, Diana Wynne Jones
I really am enjoying John Keegan's book on World War I, as well as learning a lot from it. But last week was a bit stressful, and I found myself struggling with the complexities of six different war strategies, not to mention details of troop movements on both Fronts. I found it hard to settle down with anything else, though. I started and abandoned books all week, until Friday evening, when I sat down with Witch Week, the fourth of the Chrestomanci books, and read half of it almost in one go. And though I finally had Kate Atkinson's Life after Life waiting at the library, I set it aside for the moment in favor of still more Chrestomanci.
The Chrestomanci stories are set "In the multiple parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds." In those universes, related worlds are created at a divergence over major events, like the Battle of Waterloo. In our world, Napoleon was defeated, but a parallel world was created in which he won that battle, and World B (while related to ours) developed differently from that point. Most people have doubles in all the related worlds, but occasionally someone doesn't. If that single (un-doubled) person has talents, especially magical ones, then all the talent that would normally be spread across his or her doubles in the related worlds is instead concentrated in one person. In the worlds with magic, the most powerful are the enchanters. As Diana Wynne Jones explains,
"Now, if someone did not control all these busy magic-users, ordinary people would have a horrible time and would probably end up as slaves. So the government appoints the very strongest enchanter there is to make sure that no one misuses magic. This enchanter has nine lives and is known as 'the Chrestomanci' . . . He has to have a strong personality as well as strong magic."The current Chrestomanci reminds me very strongly of a Georgette Heyer hero, one of the impeccably-dressed, imperious, rapier-tongued type, the Marquis of Alverstoke perhaps, though with the saving grace of humor. When at home in Chrestomanci Castle, he tends to lounge around in gorgeous silk dressing gowns, but no one would ever take him for a curst dandy.
Witch Week, which I read first, falls somewhere in the middle of the series' chronology (which does not match the publication order). It opens with an accusation: "SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH." The class is 6B, in Larwood House, "a boarding school run by the government for witch-orphans and children with other problems." The accusation of witchcraft is an extremely serious one in this world, where it is banned and witches are routinely executed (though no longer burned at the stake in public spectacle). Hence all the witch-orphans, sent to places like Larwood House for re-education. When accusations of witchcraft fall on 6B, and strange things begin to happen in the school, it won't be long before the Inquisitors make their appearance. And those children who know or suspect that they are witches have no one to turn to, except the almost-mythical figure of the Chrestomanci. Larwood House is a nasty place, with cliques and bullies, toadies and sneaks, and I don't think the similarity in name to Lowood House is a coincidence.
Charmed Life is the story of Eric Chant, generally known as Cat, and his sister Gwendolyn. They are orphans as well, having lost their parents in a boating accident that Cat himself barely survived. Gwendolyn is a powerful witch who believes herself destined to rule the world, though she is presently stuck in the small town of Wolvercote. When she learns that they are related to Chrestomanci, she writes to him for help. Soon after, a tall man dressed in trousers with a pearly stripe and a coat of beautiful velvet arrives (the setting seems Edwardian). He arranges for Cat and Gwendolyn to live with his family at Chrestomanci Castle. Gwendolyn is at first thrilled, believing that her time has come, but she is mortified when they arrive to be treated as a child, one who must still be educated in the basics of magic, let alone more mundane subjects. She plots to prove her power and take her place as one of the great witches. Cat, meanwhile, is miserably afraid of what will happen when everyone realizes he can't work magic.
The Lives of Christopher Chant is the story of how the Chrestomanci of the other books came to be. It starts with a little boy, the Christopher of the title, who can travel in his dreams to all kinds of wonderful worlds. These worlds are a way to escape his unhappy family, where his parents communicate only by acrimonious notes amid accusations that his father wasted his mother's fortune in foolish investments. When Mama's brother Uncle Ralph learns about Christopher's journeys, he explains that bringing things back from those worlds can help his mother live a comfortable and happy life. But the other worlds are a dangerous place, and Christopher dies more than once in the course of his adventures. Once his father finds out what is going on, he takes Christopher away for proper training. Christopher is devastated to learn that he is a nine-lived enchanter, and he must therefore be the next Chrestomanci.
All three stories are great fun, though each has its dark moments (I am haunted by the fate of the mermaids in one of Christopher's worlds). There is treachery and betrayal, greed and ambition, but also loyalty, honor, and the love of family and friends - and a true appreciation for cats, especially those rescued from the Temple of Ashteth. Some of the scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, like two accused witches fleeing in desperation, one on an elderly hoe and the other on a recalcitrant rake, while others are truly creepy. Gwendolyn in particular has a talent for nasty tricks, and she doesn't spare even her own brother. Cat is a great character, as of course is Chrestomanci himself, but the real hero of the books is his wife Millie, who has her own wonderfully adventurous story.
There are three other books in the Chrestomanci series, and I may find myself back in his worlds before too long.