Things that are Becca’s fault #5: me reading Diana Wynne Jones.
It started with Homeward Bounders, because Milliways. Then it became Witch Week because “this is how I learned about Guy Fawkes!” I have no doubt it will eventually lead to Howl’s Moving Castle because I liked the Studio Ghibli movie. But today it is the rest of the Chrestomanci novels, starting with Charmed Life. This is the first novel she wrote in the series (1977), but the last – or one of the last, as there’s no obvious chronological connection to Witch Week – for in universe continuity.
But it’s fun! A nice boy-learns-magic children’s book from the Great British tradition that also includes Jill Murphy and later a certain Rowling lady. The protagonist, Cat is the younger brother of a witch – Gwendolen – who is exposed to some bad influences at a key point in her moral development and spends much of the book having a giant witchy temper tantrum.
I misphrased that. The plot of the book is Gwendolen having a giant witchy temper tantrum, while Cat runs around trying to clean up after her until he realizes that he doesn’t have to be tied to his big sister’s machinations any more.
There are other characters in it, and they’re all great characters, but mostly their job is to let Gwendolen have her temper tantrum until she goes away and then apologize to Cat for not being more supportive. Which is actually nice. It’s important for boy-learns-magic books for a putative authority figure to let him get himself in trouble, but it’s rare for them to turn around at the end of the novel and apologize for it.
Diana Wynne Jones’ skill comes in her over the top, deeply flawed characters, that encourages us to revel in the character’s flaws. Sometimes this involves ambushing their roommates as they come out of their bedroom saying “Gwendolen is HORRIBLE!” But Gwedolen is young, and flawed, and Cat is naive and loyal, and they both may have room for growth even after the books ends. No one is perfect, and some people are ridiculous, and that’s where Wynne Jones’ gift for description comes in.
I defy anyone not to love a book with the line “and then he swept out of the room like a very long procession of one person.”
I don’t know where these books have been all my life. I keep expecting some sudden sense of deja legi to hit me in the face and remind me that I loved them as a kid, but so far nothing. All the better, because now I get to read them for the first time.
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