Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
For reasons that escape me now, while I was discovering Jones’ work I avoided the Chrestomanci series for a long time. Anyway, running low on solo novels I picked this one up, and I’m glad I did.
Eric “Cat” Chant is hardly living a charmed life when we meet him. Though he lives in a world in which witches, warlocks, necromancers, enchanters and the like are common (and licensed) professions, he has not a lick of such talent himself. His sister Gwendolyn is a talented witch, which proves lucky since within two pages of the start of the book their parents take them on a Sunday boat outing and are killed. Eric himself only survives because he holds on to Gwendolyn and Gwendolyn, being a witch, cannot drown. The children are taken in by Mrs. Sharp, who lives downstairs and who, though only a minor witch herself and in no way able to match Gwendolyn’s power, arranges for Gwendolyn to take lessons with the necromancer next door.
In going through a box left behind by their parents, the children and Mrs. Sharp find that their father had been in contact, and had quarreled with, someone named Chrestomanci. Eric doesn’t know who Chrestomanci is, and Mrs. Sharp won’t tell him, only that this is someone very important, but the end of the affair is that Gwendolyn writes to Chrestomanci and he comes and visits, and invites the children to come and live with his family.
Gwendolyn feels that she’s well on her way to her goal of ruling the world, but Eric feels lost and that only gets worse once they get to Castle Chrestomanci. Gwendolyn immediately quarrels with Chrestomanci when he forbids her to do witchcraft without supervision, and her increasingly mean-spirited and vengeful spells put her and Eric on the outs with Chrestomanci’s family (to whom, it turns out, the children are distantly related) and the castle staff. Gwendolyn’s penultimate move constitutes a massive spoiler and comes about midway through the book, making any discussion of the ending impossible in even the most general terms (except to note that how a boy named “Eric” got nicknamed “Cat” turns out to be important).
The major plotline turns out to be one of those that would be resolved in a few pages if some of the characters actually took the time to talk to each other; on the other hand, Jones avoids making making it an idiot plot by giving the characters good reasons not to talk. It’s still a little frustrating for the reader, but it does make for a nice wrap-up.
Overall, highly recommended.