Reading level: Middle grades
Cat knows his sister Gwendolen is a wicked witch—but she’s the only family he has left, and he loves her furiously. When Gwendolen conspires with her black magic tutor to get taken into the home of the great enchanter Chrestomanci, the thoroughly non-magical Cat is forced to go with her. While his sister determines to make an impression on the unflappable Chrestomanci, by conjuring apparitions to interrupt dinner and bringing total darkness to the castle every two hours, Cat tries to get along with the Chrestomanci’s enchanter-in-training children and the rest of the curious family at Chrestomanci Castle. But Gwendolyn’s plans are darker than even Cat realizes, and he has to choose between loyalty to the sister he loves and doing the right thing.
Charmed Life is the first book in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, and it’s a delightful introduction to the world of the Chrestomanci, where magic is so ubiquitous that it needs a sort of President-of-All-Things-Magical to keep it all in check. (Alternatively, you could start with The Lives of Christopher Chance, which introduces the Chrestomanci when he was just a kid named Christopher Chant having magical dreams.) Diana Wynne Jones is a masterful world-builder, and with almost no exposition or explanatory passages, she manages to bring a complicated and nuanced world to life.
It’s easy to get a little frustrated at Cat’s devotion to Terrible Gwendolen, and he’d have to be unflinchingly loyal to miss some of the clues to just how awful his sister really is—much like Chrestomanci, we’re tempted to protect him from that knowledge, even though we know that realization is the only thing that will pull him out of Gwendolen’s shadow. Gwendolen is pleasantly villainous and makes no apologies for her villainy—her glee at successfully working evil magic is one of my favorite parts of the book.
Seeing another kind of wizards school—totally different from Hogwarts—is always fun. (I especially love the students’ magical battles over marmalade and toast.) But really, anything I say about it is going to seem pallid and flat once you start reading the actual book, which you should do, stat. You don’t have to go out and buy every single book Diana Wynne Jones has ever written after reading this, but I bet you’ll want to.
(My copy weighs in at 224 pages, meaning you can use Charmed Life to cross off “more than 200 pages” if you’re playing along with summer book bingo.)
AMY SHARONY is the founder and editor-in-chief of home | school | life magazine. She's a pretty nice person until someone starts pluralizing things with apostrophes, but then all bets are off.