Diana Wynne Jones,
Charmed Life
(Greenwillow, 1977)

Everyone knows Gwendolen Chant is destined to be a great witch. Her brother Eric, who goes by the nickname Cat, is a nice enough lad, but has no magical potential at all. After their parents drown in a boating accident, Gwendolen and Cat are taken in by a neighbor, Mrs. Sharp, a certified witch. Mrs. Sharp is determined that Gwendolen should have lessons in magic and witchcraft, and sends her to Henry Nostrum, a neighboring necromancer.

But among their parents' effects are some letters signed "Chrestomanci," and this signature seems to impress Mrs. Sharp and Mr. Nostrum. Gwendolen writes to Chrestomanci -- whoever he is -- and before they know it, Gwendolen and Cat are on their way to Chrestomanci Castle to learn witchcraft from a master. At first, Gwendolen is delighted. Finally, her talents are to be recognized, and she will step into her rightful place in the world.

Cat and Gwendolen are given beautiful, private rooms and are treated well, but Gwendolen's expectations are dashed immediately when she finds that she will be treated like any other young student of magic. Gwendolen displays her disapproval flagrantly, flamboyantly and frequently, and each time, the relative lack of response from Chrestomanci provokes her further. Finally, she pulls a final trick with repercussions across worlds.

All this time, Cat is watching and worrying, desperately unhappy and homesick for Mrs. Sharp and his old life. In spite of his having no magical talent, magical things start happening around him, until Cat finally learns the truth about himself, Gwendolen and Chrestomanci -- and his cousin, Christopher Chant.

The Chrestomanci novels have been delighting young readers for decades, and there is every indication that they will continue to do so. Diana Wynne Jones tells a terrific and original story with appealing characters -- or, as in the case of Gwendolen, characters you love to hate. She never condescends to her readers, and she allows her characters to have authentic emotions and responses. Her humor is dry and understated but not obscure.

Get your favorite young reader a copy of Charmed Life but don't be surprised if you find yourself sneaking off to read it yourself.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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