Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: MacMillan London Ltd.
Charmed life is the
first second first book of Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series. As such, it will usually be found in the children's or YA section of your local bookstore or library, and is considered 'light fantasy'.
Chrestomanci, for those of you not in the know, is the job title for the head of the Managing Magical Affairs Department, a position always held by a powerful enchanter. His job is to prevent magical abuses (like smuggling dangerous magical items between worlds) and to identify powerful magicians who might aid in this noble, government mandated cause. Fortunately, he does not live in our world, so his position is more that of a titled lord than that of a government bureaucrat.
Charmed life was the first book to introduce this position and the set of worlds surrounding it. It is not, however, the chronological start of the series. In 1988 (11 years later!) Mrs. Jones finally wrote the prequel, The Lives of Christopher Chant. In the later collection The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, both of these books were published in one volume; we therefore know that the publisher (and perhaps Mrs. Jones too?) recommends reading them in the order that they were published, not chronologically. I think that I would recommend them be read vice-versally, but IANDWJ.
This is the story of Eric Chant (who goes by the name of Cat) and his sister Gwendolen. They are orphaned at an early age by a tragic steamboat accident, and sent to live with a local witch. Gwendolen shows great magical talent and is sent to study with the local necromancer. Cat shows no particular talents at all, and settles down to live in his sister's shadow.
Things start to change one day when a fortune teller informs Gwendolen that she will one day become the queen of the world. Not long afterwards Chrestomanci appears in their kitchen, and takes them to live in his castle. Much to Gwendolen's rage, in Chrestomanci's castle she is forbidden to study or practice magic. This does not stop her; she simply does the worst spells she can manage at every opportunity.
Cat (this is actually a story about Cat) is not particularly happy with this, but he follows along and does as his sister tells him, as he always does. But as the story progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that he is going to have to take charge of the situation. I'm against spoilers, so I will stop there, but take my word for it, it's a great book.
This is one of Diana Wynne Jones' best books. It's a great fantasy, enjoyable even if you aren't a child/young adult. It is fully steeped in the traditional British children's literature ideal that children cannot trust adults (think how many of Harry Potter's problems could have been solved if he had just gone to Dumbledore, or if the adults would just listen to him), and the comprehensive lack of communication betwixt characters causes all sorts of chaos.
Despite the fact that Diana Wynne Jones is often grouped with J.K. Rowling, her books are written at a slightly higher reading level. I am inclined to think that this is a good thing, but Charmed Life, as with so many older children's books, is not as quick and easy a read as Harry Potter or the Twilight books (or The Animorphs or Maximum Ride, etc.) If you are buying this for a young reader, be aware that they will need to be able to focus on a slightly higher level than what Scholastic book club has trained them for.