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Don’t Play Your Games With Me

Charmed Life  (Chrestomanci, volume 1)

By Diana Wynne Jones 

4 May, 2018

Twelve by Diana Wynne Jones


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1977’s Charmed Life is the first novel in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series.

Gwendolen and Eric Cat” Chant were orphaned by a boating disaster; their survival wasn’t due to luck, but to Gwendolen’s witchy gifts. Their new guardian, Mrs. Sharp, is a Certified Witch. She does her best to mentor Gwendolen, but her best is not enough for ambitious Gwendolen.

Gwedolen exploits a family connection to senior mage Christopher Chant — better known as Chrestomanci — and cajoles him into inviting her into the Chrestomanci household. Her totally insignificant (in her eyes) brother, Cat, comes as part of the package. No matter. The fame and power to which she is entitled will soon be hers! Or so she thinks.

Chrestomanci is less impressed with Gwendolen than she expects. Gwendolen has managed a fiddle that gives her more magical power than is hers by right. She soon finds that she has made a very poor choice in insinuating herself into Chrestomanci’s household. Chrestomanci’s job is detecting and preventing the misuse of magic. Conflict ensues, and Gwendolen is repeatedly frustrated.

Gwendolen eventually concludes that she needs to relocate. And not just to another town. She vanishes and is replaced by Janet, her doppelganger from an alternate world. 

Janet hasn’t any knowledge of or talent for magic. Nor does she have any means to pay off Gwendolen’s debts (owed to an illicit potion pusher). But she does have a friend in Cat, who sees that she is not his sister and that she is much nicer than his sister. The two attempt to deal with the debt … and in the process, discover that the fate of worlds is at stake.


Cat is the real protagonist; his sister is just the big bad (the selfish, exploitative big bad). However, for much of the book Gwendolen is the one taking active measures to achieve her goals (and so dominates events), whereas Cat is more inclined to keep his head down and hope to remain unnoticed. While he will act when he absolutely must, things must come to a pretty pass before he accepts the need.

Once the focus shifts to Cat, we watch him grow and change. He learns that he has potential he never suspected; he also learns that his sister, whom he has regarded as his protector, is a manipulative sociopath [1] who would not hesitate to take anything she wants or kill anyone who gets in her way. 

If there was ever a character entitled to say

it’s Cat. While Gwendolen has her reasons to concealing certain matters from Cat, Chrestomanci and his chums also withhold information from Cat — for reasons that seemed compelling at the time. Many novels with juvenile protagonists do the Adults Are Useless shtick. Jones does the more believable Adults Are Busy Doing Stuff Orthogonal to the Kid’s Plot. In this case, Chrestomanci’s decision to wait and watch allowed a bad situation to go on longer than it needed to. 

But it is all nicely wrapped up at the end. A book to be read when you need a charming entertainment.

Charmed Life is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Janet is a parallel version of Gwendolen. She appears to be every bit as pragmatic and ruthless as is Gwendolen. In her case, the goal she serves is the greater good. This is fine when the life she is juggling is her own, or when she is aiding the people she might have been in other worlds. I would hesitate to put her in charge of a nation.