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Cat doesn't mind living in the shadow of his sister, Gwendolen, the most promising young witch ever seen on Coven Street. But trouble starts brewing the moment the two orphans are summoned to live in Chrestomanci Castle. Frustrated that the witches of the castle refuse to acknowledge her talents, Gwendolen conjures up a scheme that could throw whole worlds out of whack.

252 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1977

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About the author

Diana Wynne Jones

126 books10.4k followers
Diana was born in London, the daughter of Marjorie (née Jackson) and Richard Aneurin Jones, both of whom were teachers. When war was announced, shortly after her fifth birthday, she was evacuated to Wales, and thereafter moved several times, including periods in Coniston Water, in York, and back in London. In 1943 her family finally settled in Thaxted, Essex, where her parents worked running an educational conference centre. There, Jones and her two younger sisters Isobel (later Professor Isobel Armstrong, the literary critic) and Ursula (later an actress and a children's writer) spent a childhood left chiefly to their own devices. After attending the Friends School Saffron Walden, she studied English at St Anne's College in Oxford, where she attended lectures by both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien before graduating in 1956. In the same year she married John Burrow, a scholar of medieval literature, with whom she had three sons, Richard, Michael and Colin. After a brief period in London, in 1957 the couple returned to Oxford, where they stayed until moving to Bristol in 1976.

According to her autobiography, Jones decided she was an atheist when she was a child.

Jones started writing during the mid-1960s "mostly to keep my sanity", when the youngest of her three children was about two years old and the family lived in a house owned by an Oxford college. Beside the children, she felt harried by the crises of adults in the household: a sick husband, a mother-in-law, a sister, and a friend with daughter. Her first book was a novel for adults published by Macmillan in 1970, entitled Changeover. It originated as the British Empire was divesting colonies; she recalled in 2004 that it had "seemed like every month, we would hear that yet another small island or tiny country had been granted independence."Changeover is set in a fictional African colony during transition, and begins as a memo about the problem of how to "mark changeover" ceremonially is misunderstood to be about the threat of a terrorist named Mark Changeover. It is a farce with a large cast of characters, featuring government, police, and army bureaucracies; sex, politics, and news. In 1965, when Rhodesia declared independence unilaterally (one of the last colonies and not tiny), "I felt as if the book were coming true as I wrote it."

Jones' books range from amusing slapstick situations to sharp social observation (Changeover is both), to witty parody of literary forms. Foremost amongst the latter are The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, and its fictional companion-pieces Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998) and Year of the Griffin (2000), which provide a merciless (though not unaffectionate) critique of formulaic sword-and-sorcery epics.

The Harry Potter books are frequently compared to the works of Diana Wynne Jones. Many of her earlier children's books were out of print in recent years, but have now been re-issued for the young audience whose interest in fantasy and reading was spurred by Harry Potter.

Jones' works are also compared to those of Robin McKinley and Neil Gaiman. She was friends with both McKinley and Gaiman, and Jones and Gaiman are fans of each other's work; she dedicated her 1993 novel Hexwood to him after something he said in conversation inspired a key part of the plot. Gaiman had already dedicated his 1991 four-part comic book mini-series The Books of Magic to "four witches", of whom Jones was one.

For Charmed Life, the first Chrestomanci novel, Jones won the 1978 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime award by The Guardian newspaper that is judged by a panel of children's writers. Three times she was a commended runner-up[a] for the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book: for Dogsbody (1975), Charmed Life (1977), and the fourth Chrestomanci book The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988). She won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, children's section, in 1996 for The Crown of Dalemark.

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5 stars
11,572 (34%)
4 stars
12,578 (37%)
3 stars
6,957 (20%)
2 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,570 reviews
Profile Image for Mark Lawrence.
Author 72 books51.7k followers
November 17, 2022
I've just finished reading this to my daughter Celyn (11, too disabled to read for herself).

It's a fun story of Cat and his witchy sister Gwendolin living in a world that's almost ours but where witches and wizards exist and are well-known.

Like an enormous wedge of literature it's one of those adventures that would be over really quite quickly and with very little fun if the man (or woman) at the top just sat down and told everyone what was going on. Dumbledore could probably have reduced the Harry Potter series from seven long books to three short ones if he just told Harry things he knew that Harry needed to know. But let's not dwell on that.

At first glance it's quite a light-hearted tale centred around the true motivation of the eponymous Chrestomanci, a very dapper master-wizard who takes the siblings into his castle and family. It's written with Diana Wynne Jones' customary skill, energy, and imagination, and very enjoyable.

As things develop elements of the story takes a surprisingly dark tone, but the best children's books always carry an edge, and this edge serves to add interest in the finale!

Those seeking a 'magic-system' will be disappointed. DWJ's magic is magic and she doesn't share the rulebook in any of the four novels we've read so far. But that's how I like it and I've no complaints.

I've ordered book 2 on the strength of this one, so that's my recommendation right there.

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Profile Image for Joel.
556 reviews1,665 followers
May 3, 2011
Sibling rivalry can feel like life or death when you are a kid. I mean, probably. I have an older brother* but I think the roughest thing that ever went down between us was maybe at ages 4 and 6 when he kept all the toys at one end of the bathtub. We've never had a physical fight. I don't see one in the offing, since we're both pushing/well past 30, agree on everything (well, not politics, but the important stuff like the Star Wars prequels suck and Mario games are the best, plus he lets me borrow his DVDs). And besides, we are still united against my dad. (Hi, dad, who reads my book reviews! Look at my joke.)

Google turns up some really crappy stock photography when you search "sibling rivalry." Look at these twerps; can't you just taste the hatred?

Kids, stop hugging and smiling and come eat!

sibling rivalry-1

My girlfriend on the other hand has two younger brothers, and from what she's told me, it's only mere chance that she has never appeared on one of those shows about child psychopaths (in her defense, they sound like little beasts).

Anyway, the point is that if you have a pair of children who fight a lot, it's probably best not to let the younger one get anywhere near this book, because it will only confirm his suspicions that, yes, his older sister really is a sociopathic witch trying to murder him as part of a grand scheme to be named queen of the world. No, literally.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I also have a much older half-sister, but I don't think she's trying to steal my magic.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,676 reviews5,251 followers
February 28, 2013
this is a winning intro to what looks to be an enjoyable children's fantasy series. the young Chant siblings exist in a world with magic, one of many such worlds - or, rather, dimensions. after a tragic accident that leaves them orphans, older sister and talented witch Gwendolen takes to learning magic the old-fashioned way, through some sort of hedge wizard, while so-passive-it-hurts younger brother Cat blithely assumes he is magic-free. soon they are taken to the castle of Chrestomanci, an enchanter and super-cop in charge of minding magic used and magic-users in general, so that they do not run rampant and control all the poor wittle ordinary folk. and so the "adventure" begins.

i say "adventure" because this is barely an adventure novel. the tone is rather unique to me: it is all determinedly minor note. Gwendolen is definitely a mega-bitch but she doesn't exist on a grand scale (for the most part) - her bitchiness is that of a self-absorbed little princess. Chrestomanci is rather sinister, rather intriguing - but is far from a larger-than-life character. he is...quaint. the castle is rather more of a sprawling estate and the magic practiced there is not exactly mind-blowing. there is even a dragon - but a very small, baby dragon. and Cat, our hero, is a sweet kid and is also perfectly ordinary in his thought process - the only thing really unusual about his personality is his docility. i wonder how kids reading this feel about how ordinary everything is, how this tale is pretty much the opposite of epic. personally, i thought it was striking, in a good way.

the ordinariness is in some ways a cover. Chrestomanci's duties actually rather boggle the mind. Cat learns some surprisingly grown-up lessons about the various adults around him - at one point realizing the shallowness and greed at the heart of his former caretaker, a person who loves him and whom he loves in return...that was a very adult revelation. the betrayal at the center of the novel is genuinely awful, almost breathtaking when realizing its long gestation and the sheer evil behind it. and Cat's destiny is truly an awesome one - yet neither he nor the other characters treat it as such in the final revelation. everything in the novel, no matter how potentially grand-scale or deeply personal, is treated with the same surprising lack of affect. overall, an unusual and intriguing experience. and a very quick read too, much helped by Jones' clear and straightforward writing style.
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews140 followers
October 16, 2019
A solid classic. The beginning of every Diana Wynn Jones book I’ve read so far has always been so great, grounded in daily magical life, and this one shines most at the start. She makes getting to know the little routines of the characters in their towns into a riveting read.

I see the Harry Potter paralells but they’re very different stories and worlds. Overall I didn’t love this like I wanted to, but I’ll go back for the next book. This one set up an interesting world, and the characters are all really strong.

There were some unfortunate and dated things. Some casual 70s racism briefly flickers through midway in some careless dialogue and descriptions. And there’s a massive “here’s what all really happened” info dump near the end that didn’t really work for me.

But the magic was intriguing, and this British world of jealous magic users was fun to think about.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 28 books5,675 followers
November 5, 2019
My kids got super into this, trying to figure out why Gwendolen was so horrible and why Cat put up with it. Reading it aloud made me realize how deceptively simple it is, which sometimes made it seem like there was a lot of padding for such a small book, but it all came into play later. Which was hard to remember since reading it aloud took us a while.
919 reviews255 followers
August 21, 2012
It may seem odd that I can give 4 stars to a book that I the label under "favourites", but my reasoning is this: The book is not perfect, nor is it quite close. However, since the first time I read it over a decade ago, and in the many times since, it has never failed to pull me into its world and allow me a brief escape from the mundanity of everyday life. Books like this may not be technically the best I have ever read, but nonetheless remain among my all-time favourites
Profile Image for Rachel (Kalanadi).
733 reviews1,434 followers
January 28, 2019
Gwendolen was just as horrid as I remembered, but oddly I somehwat disliked Cat this time around - though nothing's exactly his fault, he is so terribly attached to his sister... who is horrid to him! I agree completely with Janet that it's infuriating Chrestomanci and the Family said nothing about what was going on to Cat. But most of all, I want one of those dressing gowns!
Profile Image for Laura.
772 reviews278 followers
February 10, 2017
What a perfect book for my mood. Thank you, Fiona! And a terrific introduction to a new (for me) series. Diana Wynne Jones was a talented writer, and I so enjoyed wandering through the pages of this book. Don't let the YA throw you off. If you like Harry Potter, I think you would like this also. Not saying they're very similar, really, but the magical worlds created are so interesting and fun. I just love her writing and the audio performance was also well done. Will definitely be continuing with this series. This genre is my sweet spot right now. <3
Profile Image for J. Aleksandr Wootton.
Author 8 books147 followers
October 16, 2020
On the evolution chart of middle-grade fantasy stories, Jones' Chrestomanci appears somewhere between E. Nesbitt and Harry Potter - closer to the latter than the former, both chronologically and artistically. In fact, one sees in Charmed Life many of the original ingredients Rowling snapped up for Potter, in much the same way that C.S. Lewis repurposed details from MacDonald's Phantastes for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The Chrestomanci series is set in a "many worlds" multiverse, in which alternative outcomes to major historical events create diverging worlds in various "series" of realities. Quite a few of those worlds are magical, and the enchanter charged with stopping the misuse of magic across them all bears the eponymous Chrestomanci title.

Each of the books is really excellent, and all quite different from one another. They are interrelated but not sequential. Each story is told from the viewpoint of a new character, and in some the Chrestomanci is barely mentioned at all. Jones has a true gift for involving the reader in the very local, very personal stakes and problems facing her protagonists. Each book was a page turner in its own way, and would function well as a standalone novel. But once you've read one you'll want the rest!

Charmed Life relates how the talented Gwendolyn Chant and her younger brother Eric ("Cat") come to live and study at Chrestomanci Castle, where all and sundry soon realize that somebody has been seriously misusing magic - but it isn't clear who, and the minor dishonesties that children often resort to to protect themselves from "getting in trouble" with adults compounds itself into real problems with surprising speed.

Any more than that would be spoilers, so I'll just add that I really didn't think you could put sympathetic dark magic into a reasonably-innocent children's fantasy and make it work.

Apparently you can, if you're Diana Wynne Jones.
Profile Image for Jayanth - A Capricious Reader.
164 reviews59 followers
January 14, 2018
I guess I'll read the complete series, this book was good.

While reading this, I realized that J. K. Rowling might have had some inspiration from this series for Harry Potter, not in terms of story or characters, but the fantasy and magical elements. The name 'You know who', the moving paintings, chess pieces that are animated and so on.

Cat Chant and Gwendolen Chant are orphan siblings. Gwendolen is a witch and she is a very ambitious one at that. Cat is quite a mellow and reserved kid and stays in his sister's shadow as he is too afraid of everyone else in the world.

While Gwendolen is taking classes from a necromancer, a mysterious person named Chrestomanci comes and sort of adopts these two kids. They know that he was an acquaintance of their late parents but don't know who he actually was. They go to Chrestomanci's castle and Gwendolen is hugely disappointed that she won't be taught magic until she starts behaving like a mature kid, because she was a very arrogant, petulant child.

What starts off as the usual struggle of orphan children to adjust in a new home, with new people, new kids of the same age, pulling pranks on everyone because you are petty and jealous slowly turns quite dark as parallel worlds and incredible magical powers come into play.

The dark side of the story hit me pretty hard, such a cruel and evil idea would never cross your mind until half way through when you start to doubt whether everything and everyone is truly who they seem to be.

While this is not as intricate a fantasy setting as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, it is still something a HP fan might enjoy as much.
Profile Image for Sheila Beaumont.
1,102 reviews148 followers
November 9, 2015
I love this book! I've already reread it several times, and it seems to get better every time I revisit it. The same goes for the rest of the Chrestomanci series, and indeed for all the books by the late, great Diana Wynne Jones I've read. This book, published in 1977, was the beginning of the craze for kids' books about witches and wizards and schools of magic, and the Chrestomanci series obviously was a major influence on J.K. Rowling, who DWJ said had likely read them when she was young and, of course, absorbed some of the ideas.

DWJ's books are superior to Rowling's, in writing, complexity, originality, and character portrayal. I say this as a big fan of the Harry Potter series. If you love Harry Potter, do give DWJ's books a try. There's a good chance you'll love them too.

Charmed Life was the first book by DWJ I ever read, and I chose it as the first in my planned reread of books by her that I have on my shelves (which is almost all of them). Next I'll reread Witch Week and all the rest of the Chrestomanci books, then go on to Fire and Hemlock (another favorite) and all the others. I'm grateful that DWJ left us so many books to enjoy! (Reviewed on April 7, 2011)

I've just enjoyed revisiting this old favorite, this time on audiobook, enhanced by the fine narration of Gerard Doyle.

Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 2 books2,948 followers
March 5, 2020
I really enjoyed this - a great fun read. I look forward to carrying on with the series.
Profile Image for Serena.. Sery-ously?.
1,093 reviews179 followers
October 23, 2015
Questo libro è una chicca!
Azzardo a dire che secondo me l'ha letto anche la Rowling.. Per me Charmed Life è un po' il nonno di Harry Potter, sotto alcuni aspetti :3

Punto di forza sono sicuramente i personaggi: non credo di aver mai incontrato tra le mie letture a target giovani un personaggio cattivo e meschino come Gwendolyn.. Ragazzi, che tipaccia! Crudele, amorale, egoista, subdola e presuntuosa..
Ah sì, ha circa 12/13 anni :D

Il modo in cui poi Cat viene dipinto è davvero particolare: è lui il vero protagonista della storia, ma l'autrice riesce a nasconderlo MOLTO bene :3

Passando alla storia vera e propria.. Io l'ho amata un sacco! L'ho trovata intricata e ben costruita, ad un certo punto la disperazione di Cat era anche la mia e continuavo a chiedermi come si sarebbe cavato dagli impicci.. Insomma, un romanzo per ragazzi che è intelligente, divertente, con bei personaggi e ben costruito! Cosa chiedere di più!

Ahhh, Chrestomanci ♥
Profile Image for Anastasia.
214 reviews8 followers
July 10, 2008
Stories of learning magic have become commonplace these days: I've even heard Diana Wynne Jones dismissed unfairly as a ripoff of JK Rowling when Diana Wynne Jones came first. There's nothing commonplace about Charmed Life: this is a fantastic story about a boy, Cat, who lives with a very ambitious witch sister after their parents drown. He goes to live with an impressively powerful man, Chrestomanci, and becomes involved in a strange political war between those who want to use magic without regard to the consequences for ordinary folks and those who want to keep magic somewhat under control. Cat is a charmingly unassuming narrator who is aware of his own inferiority--he can't even work the charm to turn buttons into gold--but caught up in something much bigger than he is. I think I've read this novel several times and still found myself laughing and commiserating with Cat every time.

This is one of the gold standards I judge children's fantasy by: it's a world of magic with true character and unique plays of ideas, particularly in the concept of a "nine lived enchanter" and a brilliant use of alternate universes that manages to feel comfortable and appropriate rather than forced and contrived.
Profile Image for Totoro.
209 reviews31 followers
August 10, 2017
the story was about a boy named Cat and his wicked witch sister Gwendolen. well , they're orphans now and after going to a couple of other people they find their way to the castle of mr.Chrestomanci.
there , Gwendolen wants to show this warlock that she has magical talents but he keeps ignoring her which makes her all the more evil.

well, first about the characters, the sister is a monster, nothing special about her, i hated her. Cat , i don't know how to feel about him, but i didn't like his meek, sheepish personality either , so what if your sister's a witch and you're not??
i expected mr.Chrestomanci to be much cooler , but he only wore nice clothes :/

i really wanted to like the story but i didn't :/
the plot , well , let's just day there was no climax to the story line, why?? i waited and waited for something exciting to happen, but aaaall the story was just a few small secrets to be revealed at the end . plus , there were no cool villains , why?? :'(

the only thing towards the end of the book that made me give 2 stars was this cute little dragon . i loved him :)
Profile Image for Niina.
940 reviews42 followers
October 31, 2021
Vaikka Diana Wynne Jonesin teokset, kuten Derkinhovin musta ruhtinas, Merlin-salaliitto ja Liikkuva linna ovat hurmanneet minut nuorempana, ei tämä hänen keskeiseksi tuotannokseen nimetyn sarjan avausosa onnistunut saamaan minua puolelleen. Plussaa rinnakkaistodellisuuksista ja Janetin kommentista, kuinka "ompeleminen on naisten häpeällistä alistamista".

Syitä, miksi kirja ei kolahtanut:
- Inhosin Gwendolenia ja Kissa oli vaisu hahmo
- Sivuhahmotkin olivat aika mitäänsanomattomia
- Hidas alku, mutta lopussa mennään pikakelauksella (kliseinen lopputaistelu)
- Kirjailija, joka jääköön nimeämättä on ottanut tästä vaikutteita omaan tuotantoonsa (orpo maaginen poika, Crestomancin nimeä ei saa mainita tai hän tulee paikalle: "Henkilö Joka Asuu Tuolla Linnassa - hän ei ansaise että hänen nimensä mainitaan", Crestomanci jättää kertomatta Kissalle asioita aivan kuten Dumbledore Harrylle, hirnyrkkitematiikkaa mm. Viulu-kissan tapauksessa)
- Käännös oli hieman töksähteleva (ymmärrän vain osittain, miksei haluttu kääntää uudelleenjulkaisua varten, koska se maksaa)
- Sanan "letukka" käyttö lastenkirjassa, Crestomaci lyö Kissaa korville
- "Hän venytti -- silmien nurkat vinoiksi kuin kiinalaisella" (s. 118) Oikeasti? Olikohan tuo kauhean hyväksyttävää edes kirjan ilmestymisen aikaan
- Kissan ja Gwendolinen vanhemmat olivat keskenään serkkuja...
Profile Image for Brick Orrock.
12 reviews
February 12, 2014
Well, I read book one of the Chrestomanci Chronicles: Charmed Life, written by Diana Wynne Jones. I was excited for this book as I’m excited to read the other books that she has on this list (Howl’s Moving Castle), and after reading this one I can say that I still am.
This book is written well and I found myself getting lost in the writing and the story. With that being said I didn’t really like it. I didn’t like the characters. They are whiny and cruel, mostly all of them. Except, the main character whom doesn’t stand up for himself or say anything out of turn.
Another thing that bothered me, and this is one of those plot devices that always bug me, is that a large majority of the plot, I’d say 95% of the plot and tension, is due to characters not telling each other things. This is rarely done well. I always feel as though there is no reason to keep the secrets that are being kept. In this book, for instance, Cat, the main character, is kept in the dark the whole book and he in turn keeps his handlers in the dark about what he is doing, and the whole time I’m thinking “why don’t they just tell each other?!” And my curiosity is never quite satiated until the end when everyone explains their motives. It was wrapped up nicely and I did get the answers I wanted, but it was too little too late. I just prefer a different type of tension in my narrative.
Also, other complaints have to do with the hokey magic system, but some people like fanciful magic with no rules or real consistency, just not me.
One other problem, and I know you want to read another problem, is the cover, the blurb on the cover, and the synopsis on the back of the book. They are all terrible. Number one, the cover is terrible. It makes me think it is a book about a cat, which it is not. The main characters name is Cat, but he is not a cat. If I had to pick a book based on its cover, I would never have chosen this book.
Now for the blurb…”Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” What does it mean? At first I wasn’t sure what it could mean because the original novel was written in 1977, but this is a reprint from 2001. So then that made me think that it was talking about Harry Potter, and maybe there hadn’t been a Harry Potter in a couple of years? Or were people upset with how the last Harry Potter book ended? It’s a fantasy having to do with wizards so it makes sense. I guess. But, why would the blurb reference a fictional character and then say to replace that fictional character with a very real author? So that makes me think that Harry is an author…but I know zero authors named Harry. No real footing there. Then I thought of Princess Diana and Prince Harry, because the author is British, but that doesn’t make since. What do they have to do with a fantasy novel? So, not the best blurb…it’s confusing and doesn’t really sell me the book.
So, just to cover what I’ve said, terrible cover art and confusing blurb. So far, I wouldn’t go anywhere near this book.
OK…maybe it is about Harry Potter http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/...
Now for the synopsis on the back of the book. It gives away the plot of the story, “schemes that could destroy all the worlds of Chrestomanci.” You don’t even know that there is a scheme for anything until about ¾ of the way through the book. And you don’t know about the alternate worlds until at least halfway through it. Also, Christopher is never mentioned in the first book. So, this is just another case of me waiting through the book for it to get started and when I look up the book is already done and it finally fulfilled what the synopsis read. I imagine a good synopsis covers the feel or theme of the book, but pretty much just tells the reader the hook of the story. But, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
Well, it’s make or break time. I think that this was a good book. I enjoyed the writing and despite everything I disliked about it, the story went along smoothly. The author allows the reader to get comfortable within the narrative. But, when it comes down to it, I just didn’t like it much. I hate to say that, since this is a readable book and those don’t come around too often on this list, but I really didn’t not like it; though, perhaps there is a place for it on this list.
My blog: http://brickvsthelist.wordpress.com
Profile Image for Roslyn.
355 reviews17 followers
January 3, 2020
A couple of things struck me on this re-reading. It hit me anew just how unflinching Jones is about Gwendolen - . She is unflinching about a lot of things that I think might be avoided in children's books today. At the same time, there is some compassion extended to Gwendolen at the end, compassion she rejects. I was somewhat taken aback by what seemed to be Chrestomanci's harshness at times and the lack of communication, although that is explained by Chrestomanci at the end - but I didn't find the explanations entirely satisfactory this time. I found myself angrier than I expected at Cat's passive acceptance of what had been done to him. Jones' portrayal of his eventual refusal to go on accepting it is both subtle and powerful. I found the novel itself as powerful as ever and found it utterly compelling despite having read it so many times before.
Profile Image for Suzannah.
Author 31 books488 followers
November 27, 2020
I was really excited to pick this up at an op shop the other week! It starts off as a very bright, sunny, deceptively simple little children's book that then takes some shocking swerves at the end and turns into a story I definitely didn't see coming. I thought it was about Gwendolen, an outrageously selfish yet surprisingly powerful little girl locked into a battle of wills with her new enchanter guardian. And then SUDDENLY there was TERRIBLE BACKSTABBERY. I may even have gasped aloud.
Profile Image for Alison.
198 reviews39 followers
June 14, 2012
Eric and Gwendolen Chant have been left orphans by a steamboat accident. Cat, as Eric is known, seems an ordinary, very nice little boy, but his sister Gwendolen is a powerful young witch.

Cat and Gwendolen are taken to live at Chrestomanci Castle with Chrestomanci, a man who controls all magic use, and his family. There, Gwendolen's arrogance and selfish nature becomes evident, and makes life extremely uncomfortable for Cat, until one morning he awakes to find that she has disappeared, and in her place is a girl almost identical to her who is named Janet. Why and how Gwendolen has done this, and how it is resolved, is revealed in the story.

This book was published in 1977, and I remember reading it around a year later. It remains one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors. As a teacher I passed it on to some Harry Potter-mad children, who also loved it, and subsequent Chrestomanci books. I would use it in the classroom as a class novel for Y4+, and as a guided reading text to look at how Wynne Jones subverts our expectations, to read beyond the literal, and how she creates vivid settings. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for ~ Giulia ~.
51 reviews47 followers
June 28, 2017
Once again, Diana Wynne Jones did not disappoint.
Gwendolen has to be one of the most cruel, ruthless, self-serving, self-important villains I've ever encountered!
The world is magical, the writing is good and the main character, Scaredy Cat, endearing. Too bad that everything could have been solved, young girls would not have been uprooted from their lives and family, and lives could not have been lost from the very beginning, if only the characters had communicated with each other. sigh
Profile Image for Erin Smith.
94 reviews55 followers
January 30, 2020
This is one of those books I read as a child that I actually remembered somewhat accurately. The plot, and basic feel, minus bits and pieces. I of course did not recognize at that time fat shamming, which it seems is in many of her books. The overweight people in this series, are not evil or bad even, but their fatness is used as a learning experience for the readers, basically saying overweight people are not disgusting or without talent. When the main character begins to understand that appearances are not important the audience is still left with an uncomfortably problematic book. In this one we see the children encounter those of their own age, and immediately are informed that they are on a restrictive diet because they are fat. Later on in the book Janet pretty constantly states how fattening all the food is, she herself is eluded to as being too skinny "gaunt" even. So there really is no perfect place to be. There is also mentions of lazy eyes as a feature in antagonists, every single time they appear in case you forget, they make Cat uncomfortable and are described as shifty and immoral, dirty and poor. Throughout this book, and the 4th which I am currently reading, we have example upon example of Diana Wynne Jones trying to teach children that being judgmental, selfish, and apathetic in ones own life is actually wasting a life (aka the 9 lives of the christomancy), and asking for help and being honest will enrich your experiences. Unfortunately, using fatness, or physical deformities just cannot be successfully exploited to do that, it doesn't matter if the overweight characters turn out to be wonderful and a skinny one is ambitious and evil. Why can't authors write about overweight people without continually convincing protagonists and readers that they are human first, we don't have to wait for a plot twist to reveal their actual positions in the story. It is the same as saying that these marginalized and oppressed groups have to work so hard to gain basic rights in reality, and that is wrong, so I am going to make all of my characters do that too. Just break the mold and make them the best to begin with!

Why can't we have a lazy eyed protagonist on the larger size of the spectrum! I know I am being picky, and this is a children's series, but you can't be on a high horse of morality and then give "the bad guys" lazy eyes! This is from the prospective of an extremely sheltered young boy, so we have to give the narration a bit of a break, his judgement aren't really at fault, it's the authors extremes. What I did like was how clearly abuse was written into the relationship between Gwendolyn and Cat. It was insidious, and a great example of how certain people can enthrall others despite manic episodes of attitude, from coddling to shamming. It is interesting that Gwendolyn never struck her brother, but her abuse continually put him in danger without him being conscious of it, all the while going along in admiration at her skill set that he believed he didn't possess. When we learn her talent is his own it puts a question to the reader about their own self esteem and how they are influenced by others that are misusing and exploiting power, a power they too possess and are not actively using it because they are disenfranchised or oppressed. This could easily be an example of the negative aspects of socialization in our culture (brainwashing ext), that oppresses individual empowerment and self worth to the advantage of others, you then get someone like Cat, who has disassociated from his own life and abilities, who isn't fighting back or even realizing that he should be. His obedience is pointed out by Janet and others, and he is resistance to change even if we can see it frees him to be his own person with his own power. All change has an impact, even if it is positive it causes anxiety. We do see him challenging himself towards the end of the book of course. I would like to mention that Cat does not change his perspective because of the boxing of his ears or seeing his sister beaten with a shoe. That is just child abuse, and perhaps was placed there to show that abusing your child just makes them mistrustful, rebellious, and more secretive, I would like to think that, but as both characters that initiated physical violence were unpunished and toted as good influences I am guessing that just came from modes of the time. If it was an example of the meaningless violence of reformation it wasn't bad, it had absolutely no positive effect as violence never does in reforming individuals, especially those who are already abused.

I think that about covers it, oh yes Janet's parents didn't notice the swap, which could be another dig at negligent parents, or it could also be a comment on feeling out of place with your own position in life, as all the other "Gwendolyns" ended up better off and more comfortable. It is a counterpoint to Cats position, the idea that a dispossessed person has no growth or sense of self, but can change under the right circumstances and become a person instead of a victim. Whereas the Gwendolyn theory basically states that all of these young women were in the wrong space for their personality types, that they were born fully formed in their identity. I could read a lot into many parts of this book, many are very interesting but the surface level lessons are less complex and for an older reader a bit problematic. Still good, writing is well done. 3 stars.
Profile Image for Floor Flawless .
492 reviews61 followers
April 9, 2019
Listened to the audioboek.

I heard some great things about this series, so I wanted to give it a shot.
So I listened to it whilst doing some household chores. I liked it, but it had less impact on me than I thought it would have. The story was okay, but I won't continue the series I think.
Profile Image for Leo.
4,380 reviews404 followers
July 27, 2021
Charming children's story for sure. Listened to this and it was short and sweet. Excited to see where this adventure series goes.
Profile Image for Julie.
950 reviews247 followers
October 17, 2021
I’m doing a Chrestomanci full-series (re)read with my best friend, following Diana Wynne Jones’ recommended reading order, particularly since I missed a couple of these back in the day:
1. Charmed Life (1977)
2. The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988)
3. Conrad's Fate (2005)
4. Witch Week (1982)
5. The Magicians of Caprona (1980)

Revisiting Charmed Life in particular is a delight, as it sets the stage for this world where magic is fairly humdrum and everyday, with witches and warlocks setting up shop just down the street. We go along with our main character, Cat Chant, and his older sister Gwendolen, as they’re tragically orphaned and then eventually taken in by Chrestomanci, the enchanter who oversees all the magic-users in the realm.

Poor Cat is so out of the loop — he doesn’t even realise how important or powerful Chrestomanci is, even as others hint at it in discussions around him — that he’s just carried along on the coattails of his overbearing, abusive sister. Some of the best work here is in his characterisation, in how much he loves her but she tramples all over him, and you only realise more and more about it as time goes on. It breaks my heart, especially when other characters notice and try to push back on it, like sweet Roger and Julia trying to invite him to play with them and to do things on his own without Gwendolen, or this exchange: Janet looked at him consideringly. “I suppose you’re quite small still,” she said, “but you do worry me when you go all cowed. Has anyone done anything to you?”

The eventual arc of how he grows a backbone and finds his courage is so lovely to see.

I also love Chrestomanci himself so much; I remember having the biggest crush on this character, well-dressed and dapper and kind as he is. His vague distraction is also just really interesting as a trait, how it belies his true capabilities and power, and the way he’s so mellow and tongue-in-cheek even in the face of Gwendolen’s histrionics:
“Someone’s been opening my letters,” said Gwendolen. “And I don’t care who it is, but I’m not having it! Do you hear?”

Cat gasped at the way she spoke. Chrestomanci seemed perplexed. “How are you not having it?” he said.

“I won’t put up with it!” Gwendolen shouted at him. “In future, my letters are going to come to me closed!”

“You mean you want me to steam them open and stick them down afterward?” Chrestomanci asked doubtfully. “It’s more trouble, but I’ll do that if it makes you happier.”


“He was my teacher!” Gwendolen said furiously. “You’ve no right to!”

“It’s a pity,” said Chrestomanci, “that you were taught by a hedge wizard. You’ll have to unlearn such a lot. And it’s a pity too that I’ve no right to open your letters. I hope you don’t get many, or my conscience will give me no peace.”

“You intend to go on?” Gwendolen said. “Then watch out. I warn you!”

“That is very considerate of you,” said Chrestomanci. “I like to be warned.”

This setting, with its portal worlds and alternate universes, also fits in well with the rest of Jones’ oeuvre like Howl’s Moving Castle and Dark Lord of Derkholm. The atmosphere is just so quaint and fun and quirky that I love dipping into her worlds (Mrs Sharp’s sad enchanted gingerbread men!! so funny).

The only iffiness in this book — showing its age, having come out in 1977 — is that there’s some perpetual unnecessary fatphobia, particularly from one of our ‘good’ characters, Janet; and there’s one really startling scene of corporal punishment where Mr Saunders spanks Gwendolen heartily with his shoe, and Chrestomanci strikes Cat several times(!) in the head. Like, he’s so gentle and protective and paternal otherwise that it doesn’t even feel like it fits with his characterisation to literally beat a child; particularly one like Cat, who’s already cowed and abused and not responsible for… any decisions around him, really.

So, there’s a couple moments where this is very much a product of its times, but all the rest of the time it’s just charming magical timeless children’s lit — with some neat, clever twists which are fun to observe, in hindsight, how it's all foreshadowed and hinted at. I recall this book being mindblowing when I read it as a kid, and it’s still satisfying now. Very excited to read the next few. 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Juho Pohjalainen.
Author 5 books281 followers
December 4, 2021
I don't usually notice Diana Wynne Jones's characters all that much - they serve the story and its needs, that's about it - but here I find them to be both Charmed Life's biggest merit, and its greatest flaw.

On the good side, I enjoyed the characterization of the main villain. There from the very beginning, at first she just came across as a fairly standard childlike brat - one I figured would grow out of it eventually and become the hero she was obviously to be. But no, instead she crossed some lines no hero should cross, not just in actions, but also in being absolutely unrepentant about it. And then at the end it turns out she was really rotten right from the start, and we just weren't shown the worst of it. It was subtle enough that I didn't see it coming until it practically hit me in the face, but once it did, it made perfect sense. And I grew to love to hate her. I just wish she'd gotten a bit more of a punishment over it.

On the bad side, the motives and actions of the heroes never made much of sense, especially towards the second half. It's tricky when a character is forced to keep a secret, or feels forced to, even though revealing it would actually be a good thing for everyone... but here the balance was skewed too much, and I never really came to believe there was any real reason for them to hold on to it. They could have spoken up right away and things would have turned up great - and they should have known this. It turned up pretty frustrating: it made me feel like the conflict was altogether fabricated, fake, at a couple places threatened to pull me out of the story entirely.

Honestly, the rest of it ended up fairly well overshadowed by these two points, so much so that there's not much else to say one way or the other. It's a fairly standard Diana Wynne Jones fare. But I'd say the bad overshadows the good, a little. Two and a half.
Profile Image for Mia.
283 reviews5 followers
March 21, 2021

Charmed Life is a book that has a wonderfully whimsical magical atmosphere, but fails to impress in terms of characters. I think this is why I really struggled getting in the story, even though I am a person who usually enjoys children's fiction.

I wasn't a huge fan of the way the morals were presented - the story uses Gwendolen as the villain, to show children how bad being bratty and not respecting people around you is. Cat's character, on the other hand, is meant to show that complacency to such behaviour is just as harmful. What I really don't like is that the main moral of the story is "Don't be like Gwendolen" and she is made to be as incorrigibly evil as possible, which is an odd way to write her given that she is a very young child. I think dialing down her villainous actions and showing her better herself would have been a more healthy and leayered lesson to teach children.

On top of this the novel hasn't aged well - at one point adult characters use corporal punishment on Cat and Gwendolen, and there is some fatfobia in the story (the fatfobic things were said by Gwendolen, who is a villain, but the whole situation was written kind of weird and it didn't sit well with me).

The magical atmosphere of Charmed Life was the one element of the story that I loved the most - the worldbuilding here is fairly soft, which makes for a quite wonderous experience.
Profile Image for Elana.
Author 8 books109 followers
December 7, 2018
This book began with five stars for nostalgia (I read it ages ago, when I was just starting out on my fantasy-reading journeys).

I docked 1.5 stars for the ending, which -- while it was foreshadowed well in little sprinkles throughout the book -- felt sudden and left quite a deus-ex-machina taste in my mouth.

I docked another .5 stars for Chrestomanci himself; I remember such a larger-than-life character, but it seemed, upon my re-reading of the book, that we hardly got to know him at all. Nor do we see the extent of his power. In fact, really the most we see of his power is his susceptibility to silver (e.g., when his powers are incapacitated). Bit of a let-down.

I added a star back in for the adorable baby dragon and its timely commentary on poaching/illegal animal products trade. (I was prepared to dock another full star when it first appeared. I couldn't remember that it was actually still alive, and I thought Mr. Saunders was making use of a mummified dragon corpse, which I did not approve of one bit.)

Four stars overall -- after a bit of a jolting beginning, I fell into the cadence of the writing and found the book quite enjoyable.
Profile Image for Tina.
269 reviews171 followers
December 25, 2015
I've loved everything from DWJ that I've read. From Howl's Moving Castle to Castle in the Air to House of Many Ways to Charmed Life to The Lives of Christopher Chant, Diana Wynne Jones showed such wonderful imagination. I never quite know where her plots will head or how her quirky characters will fare, and I love every minute I spend in her worlds.
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