I’ve read the first volume of Diana Wynne Jones’ The Chronicles of Chrestomanci several times since I was first introduced to it, near when I was introduced to Harry Potter. Somehow, Jones’ books rarely make much impression upon me. I always enjoy them as I’m reading them, and remember enjoying them, but the plots seem to fall from my head with some speed. I picked up The Lives of Christopher Chant again because I was searching my shelves for instances of magical instruction, asked my mother what she recalled of Chris’, and the details that she mentioned were not ones that I remembered—that and I was having fun making a list of fictional cats, dreaming up names for future cats of my own, and Jones’ books have several, none of whom I could remember.
The Lives of Christopher Chant is relatively quick-paced, and the language relatively simple, easily settling into the reading level of middle and late elementary students. In this tale Jones does a particularly good job capturing the child’s perspective. Chris would rather play cricket, go to school with his mates, and have adventures in the alternate worlds that he can only reach in his sleep than be thrust into society, be pawn in his parents’ war, or study at Chrestomanci Castle with promises that he will one day have to assume the responsibilities of Chrestomanci, a sort of law enforcement and high-ranking government official for the interconnected worlds within Chris’ universe.
Chris fails to see the adult perspective. He doesn’t realize—or refuses to realize any nefariousness within his uncle’s “experiments.” He does not connect his experiments with the crimes that the staff at Chrestomanci Castle are ignoring Chris to focus on stopping. Somehow that’s not irritating though. It’s refreshing. Chris is innocent where Harry Potter—the Chosen One of another more famous magical school story—is suspicious and wary. (I also use Harry as a foil because the cover of the books boasts “Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” I assume that U.S. News & World Report meant Potter given the book’s release date (2001 would have been months after the book release of The Goblet of Fire and during the lead-up to the release of the first Harry Potter film).)
Though the plot here is an interesting one—Chris’ education; assumption of the responsibilities of Chrestomani; rescue of the current Chrestomanci, Gabriel de Witt; and Chris’ takedown of his uncle’s criminal organization—it seems to intend to share its stardom with the universe.
Jones has built the interconnected worlds of Chrestomanci for me over six novels and many years, so I can’t honestly judge how well this singular book constructs the universe, but this more than any of the others perhaps really explains the ways in which the Related Worlds are connected, if the impression that it gives is vague. The physics here are difficult. There are twelve series of worlds and Series Twelve at least has an A and B, but there are hints that any series could include infinite worlds, a new world created when one world reaches a junction—perhaps something like the opposite of the Doctor’s fixed point in time—where a great event might have more than one possible outcome.
This is the only book to visit Series Eleven, and there Jones has created an eerie world of persons kept in submission to a dictatorial leader—the Dright—worthy of L’Engle’s IT, a dark, densely forest world where the Dright keeps even the laws of physics in submission to himself.
Chris as a nine-lived enchanter is able to travel to each of the Related Worlds. He does so, uniquely, through a form of spirit travel that allows him to be physically present in two worlds at once by leaving one life behind while the rest travel. Chris doesn’t really understand this spirit travel, and for a long time thinks only that he dreams himself to the Place Between whence he can enter the other worlds. Having no conversation with anyone other than nurses and governesses for most his childhood, he has had no one to tell him that these dreams of his are unusual until a governess chosen by his uncle discovers Christopher in possession of otherworldly artifacts and demands an explanation and then a confession to his Uncle Ralph.
Chris’ scattered instruction in magic was not particularly helpful for my own WIP. Chris has several instructors, and the only one that makes any real impression upon me is Dr. Pawson, who believes in practical lessons, the mechanics of which Jones doesn’t describe in detail—though that did give me some idea of how little it might be important for a reader to understand magic.
Jones, Diana Wynne. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: The Lives of Christopher Chant. New York: Greenwillow-HarperTrophy-HarperCollins, 2001. Story first published 1988.
This review is not endorsed by Diana Wynne Jones, her estate, Greenwillow Book, HarperTrophy, or HarperCollins Publishers Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.