I decided to review this series as a collect whole rather than write seven individual book reviews. Hopefully this will help keep people from getting annoyed with me as I obsess over my newfound love for Diana Wynne Jones, haha! I do want to say a few words about each book, though, before I talk about the series, so here are my minis:
I had very mixed feelings about the first book in this series. It was very easy to read, and fast, and interesting, but I was really, really disturbed by the extent of Gwendolyn’s indifference towards her brother Cat. Maybe this is because I’m from a family where we’re all really close – siblings, cousins, extended fam, all of us – but I was really bothered by it! It ruined the book a little for me, but at the same time, it made me want to read on in the series. There just didn’t seem to be enough psychological fallout from the climax, and I hoped that it would be addressed in further books. (Later: Sadly, it was not, and I was left dissatisfied with this book.)
The Lives of Christopher Chant
I enjoyed this one much more than the first book of the series. It’s a prequel of sorts, and I loved getting to know Christopher (the famous Chrestomanci) and several of the other characters. While I’ve yet to feel resolved about the issue I had in book #1, I do feel like this book explored the world these characters live in a bit more, and it seems as if corrupt family is fairly normal there, especially when there’s magic involved. That makes me feel a little better. And in general, I think this book was better organized and structured than Charmed Life. I feel more invested in the world and characters now.
The Magicians of Caprona
This one started slow but picked up after about a third, and ended up being my favorite of the series so far. It’s not centered on Chrestomanci, but instead on a city-state in Italy where two magical families are in a feud, sort of Romeo-and-Juliet-ish. There’s of course a lot of statement about blind prejudice and working together, the sort of thing you might expect in a story based on family feud. It didn’t feel trite, though. All of that was worked in fairly naturally. There were quite a few startling moments/images in the book, too, which made it very powerful in places. There was one spot at the end that felt a bit too deus ex machina for me, but otherwise, I really enjoyed the book.
I liked this one a lot! It takes place in a parallel world that was very interesting to explore. I thought it was a very well crafted book, leading up to a fantastic resolution. I love that Jones has no qualms about exploring the idea that not every person is destined to become heroic, and that many hold on to negative traits. A character you might love in the beginning might end up turning sour by the end of the book, just like a person you meet in real life might not turn out to be as nice/good as you first thought.
This book was interesting as it was written and structured very differently than the others. I believe it’s the first book by Diana Wynne Jones that I’ve read that’s narrated in first person. It’s another prequel, taking place after The Lives of Christopher Chant but before Charmed Life. I enjoyed the story, though it was slow to start, and especially loved how twisted and turned the ending got, though glad it still wrapped everything up. I’m not sure I could pick a favorite of the whole series, but if I had to, this one might be it. Though it has some fierce competition with The Magicians of Caprona and Witch Week.
The Pinhoe Egg
As this is the only other full book in the series with Cat in it, I had high hopes that The Pinhoe Egg would help make me feel better about Charmed Life. Sadly, it did not. There was still no psychological fallout from Gwen’s actions, and Cat’s sister is reduced to a mere blip in his life. In the end, that leaves me to simply find Charmed Life fairly distasteful and my least favorite of the series. The Pinhoe Egg as its own book, however, was really good. After so many books in this series focused on very negative families, it was interesting to see a more moderate working of that idea here – families that aren’t necessarily wicked, but misguided. The book was much longer than the others, and like Conrad’s Fate, very well put together. I can definitely see the progress in Diana Wynne Jones’ writing over time.
This was a collection of four Chrestomanci-related stories. There were two that were just okay for me, and two I liked. Of the two that were okay, “Warlock at the Wheel” was fairly forgettable, and “The Sage of Theare” was a bit confusing. I did enjoy both “Stealer of Souls,” which was a story about Cat from Charmed Life and Tonino from The Magicians of Caprona, and “Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream.” The last one appealed to me most, because it reminded me a lot of mass writers, the kind that churn out several books a year. That’s all I’ll say about this book, because I never was good at reviewing story collections, and instead I’ll move on to talk about the series as a whole.
About the series: This was the first children’s series that I’ve enjoyed in several years. In some ways, it’s light and fast and easy to read, but in others, it has a certain depth to it that gave me, as an adult reader, a lot to think about. What I found myself focusing on primarily were the family issues (understandably, after my reaction to Charmed Life) and on the way Jones built this magical world. I really can’t say much more about family that I haven’t already said above, so I’m going to talk more about the part of world-building that interested me most.
Jones created a world where magic is very commonplace. Rather than having it hidden and mostly used for good, the way it is in books such as Harry Potter, it’s out in the open, and used more often for selfish or manipulative reasons. There are far more evil or unscrupulous magic users in this series than responsible or good magic users. There is also a sort of political divide between them. A good deal of people think that magic users should be left to do whatever they wish with their magic, without government interference, while others believe that regulations and restrictions are necessary to make sure magic remains controlled. The series is interesting, because while the latter view prevails in each book, we also get to see the other side from their point of view. It makes the whole thing far more grey. We also get to see plenty of people who start out feeling like good guys, and who end up selfish, indifferent, or downright evil. There’s a definite moral grey area in these books, and not everyone comes out clean. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I applaud the world-building here. It was original, and didn’t glorify magic, even as it focused on magic the whole time.