Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Good Stuff: The Chrestomanci Series

I'm reading an audio book of one of Diana Wynne Jones's last books, which made me think about how much I enjoy her writing. Really, this post could be about any of this author's books, but I promised myself when I planned out this series of posts that it would be a series about series.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci is a YA series which involves several novels and short stories. The short stories are collected in Mixed Magics. I haven't read any of the those yet, so I'm only talking about the novels in this post. In order of publication, they are:

  • Charmed Life
  • The Magicians of Caprona
  • Witch Week
  • The Lives of Christopher Chant
  • Conrad's Fate
  • The Pinhoe Egg

Wikipedia lists them in order according to the story's timeline, but I read them by publication date, and so that's how I know them. I'm also a little confused about the order of events, which is why I won't offer much of a summary. Loosely, they're about a nine-lived enchanter who has no counterpart in any of the nine versions of reality (presumably because he's a condensed version of all of those selves), and who has to pass on the mantle of Chrestomanci to his successor.

Diana Wynne Jones writes about magic. It may be magic in a world we recognize as our own, or it may be a world where magic is commonplace. In this case, Chrestomanci lives in a world where magic is as common as any other talent, but someone worthy of the title of Chrestomanci only comes along once per lifetime. One can be born talented and powerful, but it still has to be harnessed and learned, a theme which runs through all of DWJ's books.

I first heard of DWJ when I was an anime fan, and learned that Studio Ghibli was doing a movie of Howl's Moving Castle. It was my first chance to know some part of the story ahead of time, so I picked up the book. At the time, I felt like I'd outgrown YA, like my reading the Harry Potter books was an anomaly rather than a pattern I wanted to establish.

Diana Wynne Jones changed my mind. She writes delightfully, with a strong helping of satire amongst the entertaining and well-told story. While she has some repetitive elements, each story is fresh and new. I loved Howl and Sophie, and then I discovered how much more DWJ has written, and set to devouring as much of it as I could. The humor is enjoyable on several levels, but mostly of the dry English variety I love. The narratives are rarely a black-and-white tale of good versus evil; the conflict usually comes about from human failings like greed, selfishness, and ignorance.

My favorite of the Chrestomanci books, and it's hard to pick a favorite, is The Magicians of Caprona. It's a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with warring magicians and a lot more humor. The final clash between the families is ridiculous, and I loved it.

I've already recommended Diana Wynne Jones's books to a reader who was going through a slump, and who needed to want to read again. She found DWJ just the ticket, that the books renewed her love of reading for fun. Whenever I need to clear my head of a book that took a turn for the too-depressing, it's always Diana Wynne Jones I turn to next. I still haven't made my way through all of her books, but I'm making progress. I have to save up some of them for my next reading slump.

You could do worse than to open up a tween's reading interests by picking these up. And while you're at it, get some for yourself.

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