1988’s The Lives of Christopher Chant is the fourth book published in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. It is set some decades before Charmed Life.
Christopher Chant was unlucky when issued a family. His father is a well-meaning upper-class bumbler, and his mother is a grasping social climber who is gravely disappointed in her husband. Although they cohabit, Mr. and Mrs. Chant aren’t on speaking terms. Since raising Christopher is Mrs. Chant’s domain, Christopher barely knows his father.
Two developments reshape Christopher’s life. One is that his father manages to lose the family fortune. The second …
Although he believes that unlike his parents he hasn’t a jot of magic, Christopher is in fact an unusually powerful magician. During the day, he invariably is in contact with silver1, which suppresses his magic. When he sleeps, his spirit is free to wander the Related Worlds, the sheaves (or Series) of closely related universes. This ability makes Christopher of great value to Mrs. Chant’s rascally businessman brother, Ralph. Others can wander between worlds but none so easily as Christopher.
Accompanied by the charming Tacroy, Christopher is dispatched by Ralph to test his abilities — or so Ralph says. Although the naïve young boy does not realize it at the time, the true purpose of these forays is to transport packages of illicit materials from the Related World to Christopher’s home timeline, World 12A. Ralph does quite nicely off the trafficking and is gracious enough to hand over a small fraction of the money to Mrs. Chant.
Sent away to boarding school, Christopher’s magical prowess (and the reason why it is almost always masked) is uncovered. Rather than being a magical dud, he is one of a very few people born with multiple lives. This grants him vast power and makes him a candidate to become the next Chrestomanci, the official in charge of ensuring enchanters do not abuse their powers.
Christopher does not want to be Chrestomanci. He wants to be a champion cricket player. Candidates for the Chrestomanci position are uncommon; Christopher is the only known candidate at present. What he wants has nothing to do with what the greater good demands. Christopher is sent off to Chrestomanci Castle, to learn from the current Chrestomanci and his staff how to fulfill a position Christopher has no interest in filling. It’s not surprising that he secretly continues his transworld jaunts. Or that when he stumbles into friendship with the Living Asheth, current incarnation of the Goddess in Series 10, he is steadfastly faithful to his friend.
The Living Goddess makes an unpleasant discovery. The Living Goddess is always a young girl. Curious what happens to each Living Goddess once their term of duty is over, she asked the Goddess of whom she is the living incarnation for a portent. To the Living Goddess’ horror, the portents reveal that she will die at the end of her term. Nothing for it but to flee her universe for the comparative safety of 12A.
If having a refugee living goddess hiding in his closet was not bad enough, Christopher has another problem. The Chrestomanci begins to close in on the Wraith, the criminal organization that has been importing prodigious quantities of illegal goods to world 12A. The Wraith is another name for Ralph’s organization. The means by which Ralph has been able to move so much material is of course Christopher himself.
Ralph is by no means willing to quietly submit to the Chrestomanci. Thanks to Christopher, he doesn’t have to.
World 12A has a serious problem. Not only do they have to grapple with Smith’s observation that
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
But when that trade is magic, even solitary practitioners can be a terrible menace to the less powerful. World 11 provides an example of what happens when mages are unregulated: the grand sorcerer known as the Dright not only enslaved the world, he has prevented any alternate versions of that world (with alternate and therefore rival versions of himself) from springing up. The solution 12A hit on was to find a young, superlatively powerful sorcerer and raise them to be responsible and trustworthy. This seems like the sort of arrangement that works well until it does not work at all.
Lives replays the author’s frequent theme; unreliable and awful relatives. Mr. and Mrs. Chant are too caught up in their endless bickering to pay attention to their son. Mr. Chant is at least canny enough to warn Christopher not to trust Ralph, but fails to follow through on the warning in any constructive way. Ralph is perfectly happy to use Christopher as a mule for goods that include the butchered flesh of Christopher’s mermaid friends.
Which isn’t to say one should necessarily trust one’s guardians, as the Living Goddess finds out. As it happens, once he heads to school, Christopher lucks into adults who like him, need him, and protect his well-being. But even this is fortuitous. Christopher might have remained Ralph’s secret and continued the illegal, immoral trade. The current Chrestomanci could decide that Christopher just would not do and would have to be neutralized or eliminated.
Readers get a happy ending when the trade is shut down and Christopher discover he likes being Chrestomanci almost as much as he would have liked being a champion cricket player. He’s an appealing character and we’re relieved when it all turns out well.
This might be one of the better Jones books to recommend to newbies. It’s solidly written and not half as bleak as, oh, the Dalemark books.
1: Silver allergy isn’t common in magicians, which is why nobody thought to check if the coins in Chant’s pocket were suppressing his magic. The quirk is due to his father’s well-intended attempt to protect Christopher. Mr. Chant’s fumbling attempts at astrology had convinced him that the metal would be a danger to Christopher.