Wait, is that Hogwarts?
Why yes, yes it is.
Welcome to Februari on the blog, where we’ll be going through one of the best fantasy quartets ever: Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series.
Diana Wynne Jones was a brilliantly funny, creative and engaging children’s fiction writer, and she is definitely not famous enough. This was one talented lady, and I bet she was lovely too. Her works were inspirational and influential; she won a ton of awards, including the Karl Edward Wagner Award (with J.K. Rowling as a runner-up!!). And speaking of Rowling, I will never forget when I first finished this book from my local library as a little girl, and gave it to my mum to read, who exclaimed that it was just like Harry Potter. Disclaimer: it isn’t, but it definitely has some similarities. So if you like Harry Potter, which you do, definitely give this series a shot.
Now let’s move on to book the first, Charmed Life!
This is a story about Christopher Chant (last name is very important in this series!), nicknamed Cat (foreshadowing!), and his sister Gwendolen. Gwen is a gifted witch, and Cat…is nice. They are orphaned on the first page and…seem to take it very well? They get placed with an old witch to improve Gwen’s extraordinary magical talents, and eventually get invited to Chrestomanci castle – they assume just for Gwen’s classes. Cat clings to Gwen desperately through all of this, even though she is not very nice – in general and to him. She bosses everyone around and rebels against the enforced curriculum at Chrestomanci castle.
It’s a cute little tale in which you follow the underdog, Cat. Even though he has lived his whole life in the shadow of his talented sister, he doesn’t resent her for it (he loves her intensely), and doesn’t want for anything more than he has. Even though she isn’t nice to him at all, he never holds it against her. This is can get kind of annoying if you read it just on the surface level, but it hints at an aspect of the story that is not talked about: Cat’s sadness about the loss of his parents. He was always close to his sister, but ever since their parents died he is completely lost without her. Because he had no talents and is still quite young, his family was all he had. And now that their parents are gone, Gwen is all he has. He has no spectacular career to work towards, no particular interests, no close friends. Cat is a very lonely character, which adds a bittersweet note to him and makes his loyalty to Gwen make a lot of sense. Cat is young, scared, and thrown from home to home to castle, convinced that he is only taken into his new homes because of his sister. Unloved and unwanted by the world (he thinks), he is still a nice, well mannered boy who just wants to love and be loved. Under the surface he displays impressive resilliance and strength, and he is one of my favourite characters in the series for it.
This story is a lot more complex than just this, however, which will be discussed further in the spoiler section. For those of you who don’t want to read that part – I’ll meet you at the picture!
So Gwen is not very nice, that’s firmly established in the beginning. She’s arrogant, bossy, and doesn’t care about anybody else. But the horrible things she does to poor little Cat are unforgivable. For you see, it was not actually Gwen with the talent – it was Cat. Cat is revealed to be a nine lived sorcerer, the strongest kind of magic user in the universe. Unbeknownst to him, Gwen has been stealing his magic and his lives to increase her own powers, and eventually to transport herself to a different dimension where she rules as queen, dropping Janet (our dimension’s Gwen) in her place. She used up so many of his lives that he only has 3 left (also he had some accidents).
After Cat desperately attempts to keep Gwen’s crimes hidden, whilst also trying to find a way to get her back and bring Janet home, she returns together with all evil magic users of their dimension. They, apparently, congregated to kill Chrestomanci and sacrifice an innocent – the innocent being Cat. Since Cat has 3 lives left, Gwen orders the rest to murder him thrice. So cruel. She breaks Cat’s heart, and it’s so hard to read. Naturally, Chrestomanci and Cat win and save the day, locking Gwen in the other dimension forever. Chrestomanci reveals that he had always known about Cat’s true nature, and that he didn’t trust him as he couldn’t believe Cat just gave his powers to Gwen like that. As Cat turns out to be a good person with strong magical powers, he is selected to be trained as the next Chrestomanci. Cat and Janet become very close and are both happy in the end.
So..happy ending? Maybe. The reveal of Cat’s true powers is not a complete surprise, but it is satisfying as he definitely deserved better than he got. His friendship with Janet and budding relationship with Chrestomanci’s children are sweet and warm the heart, and he got a pretty nice direction in life just handed to him. That said, the extent of Gwen’s cruelty towards her loving brother is too disturbing to be brushed aside by a quick happy ending. And this is not sloppy writing – I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be read like that.
Much like the end of The Lord of the Rings, we are shown that trauma cannot be resolved quickly. Although Cat ends up fine, he is intensely hurt by his sister’s betrayal and will never be the same again. This book really deconstructs familial relationships in a radical way and treats childhood relationships and trauma in a serious way.
It makes me so sad that many people will never have heard of this wonderful book. Even I forgot about it for ten years, and after I purchased it in a wave of nostalgia I finished it in 3 hours and hugged it close for another 2, telling it how beautiful it is. Okay, so that’s a little bit weird, but it is weird for me too. Although I love literature, especially for young readers as it is usually more magical, I rarely has a strong a feeling for a book as I do for this one.
So please, dear reader (and I know you’re out there because I can read my stats, muhaha), read this special little book. Children’s literature is not just for children.
The tea I selected to go with this read is Whittard’s Sticky Toffee. Fun fact: sticky toffee pudding is something I had never even heard of before until I came to the UK for the first time. To me, it is delicious and quintessentially British. As is Hogwarts. As is Diana Wynne Jones. So that aspect alone is a good link from tea to book. The tea itself is a black tea (an Assam, I suspect?), mixed with caramelised macademia nuts with small hints of dates. The scent is exactly like a hot sticky toffee pudding! The taste is a bit more watered down – I guess that’s an inevitable part of tea – but that is really not an issue for me. It tastes like eating sticky toffee pudding in a warm pub while it’s snowing outside, but because it’s lighter it doesn’t make me crave the real thing. So it’s a win-win! Word of wisdom though: don’t fool yourself into thinking “oh, if I let my tea infuse longer it will taste more like pudding” – it will just get bitter. Keep it to around 5 minutes!
Ooh the joys of reading this book under a blanket, with a steaming cup of probably one of the most English teas imaginable. Let your mind be transported to another world, and dream with your 11 year old self waiting for their Hogwarts letter of spells, magical schools, and a hot, young Dumbledore (seriously, Chrestomanci is described in a wonderful way..).