My First Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life (Greenwillow, 1977)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci
The first DWJ I ever purchased

I first encountered the name of Diana Wynne Jones when at age fourteen I wrote a letter to my favorite author at the time, Robin McKinley, and received this response. I had asked her to tell me her favorite book and not to answer War and Peace (I guess I was fed up with high school required reading lists). She gave quite an extensive list of books and authors, all of which I duly checked out.

Charmed Life was the first DWJ title I found in my local bookstore, and I purchased it forthwith. Here is the first paragraph:

Cat Chant admired his sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Four simple, almost simplistic sentences, but as we progress further into the story we find out that there are many layers beneath the surface. The bland statement “She was a witch” turns out to have quite a different significance in Cat and Gwendolen’s world than in ours, as witchcraft is an ordinary occupation, like hairdressing or teaching music. And Cat’s admiration of and dependence on his older sister, which seem entirely natural considering that the “great changes” in their lives include the sudden death of their parents in a boating accident, turn out to be problematic. For magic may be common in Cat’s world, but it’s not always innocuous, and Gwendolen is not using her powers to benefit her young brother, but rather the opposite.

Diana Wynne Jones novel
The latest British edition

These two threads — the building of an alternate world in which magic is a part of daily life, and the theme of a young person’s need to discover his own strengths and free himself from unhelpful bonds — make a marvelous blend, a tale that is wonderfully fanciful, entertaining, and imaginative, yet grounded in serious concerns of the human heart. And the deadpan style masks a wickedly perceptive sense of humor. As I read more of Jones’s work, I found this blend in book after book, always with new twists and new worlds to explore, and always with the same sense of humor rooted not in cheap laughs but in a rare kind of wisdom.

Maybe that’s why of the authors Robin McKinley recommended, Diana Wynne Jones is the only one who became a favorite of mine, far eclipsing McKinley herself in the end. She is a writer of comedy in the true sense: a way of looking at life that, while it sees what is absurd and out of place with clear eyes, also uplifts us with the knowledge of what is noble and enduring in the human spirit. While it might seem presumptuous to compare her to the greatest writer of comedies in English, Shakespeare, in her chosen realm of children’s fantasy novels, she’s not so far from the top. She has her flaws and weak points, but at her height of creative invention, I don’t know anyone who compares to her.

While you may see Charmed Life publicized as part of the “Chrestomanci series” (along with The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, and The Pinhoe Egg), it is not a series in the conventional sense and the order of reading is not terribly important. Charmed Life is a good place to start, though, because in it Jones introduces the character of Chrestomanci — a role rather than a name, an enchanter powerful enough to ensure that lesser magic-workers follow the rules in his world; it also introduces the important idea of “related worlds,” alternate realities that have split off when an event in history could have taken different paths. I’m not going to go into the plot more than that, because I want you to discover its surprises for yourself; and if I haven’t managed to intrigue you by now, I give up.

Five weeks from today, I’ll be hosting a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and a read-along of another Chrestomanci book, Witch Week, from October 31 to November 6, 2014. Although Charmed Life is not one of the official featured books of that week, if you’re thinking of joining us, you might want to check it out if you haven’t already. It was where I began, and I still think it’s a good place to start. From there, you’re going to find many magical worlds to explore.

Review copy source: Personal collection

8 thoughts on “My First Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life

  1. How brilliant that Robin McKinley wrote you back with a whole bunch of book recommendations. I love it that she says the new one, Fire & Hemlock, is superb. True facts. Fire and Hemlock remains the superb-est of her books in my mind.


  2. I've just realized that "My first [author] is a feature of yours. I love it – what a great idea! Of course, for many authors I'm not even sure what my first book was, but some are truly memorable. (FWIW, my first DWJ was Enchanted Glass.) And this is a truly lovely review. Your summation of DWJ is wonderful.


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