by Diana Wynne Jones
The hero of the first Chrestomanci novel is a very nice little boy named Cat, whose actual name is Eric Chant. He and his older sister Gwendolen are suddenly orphans, thanks to a horrendous steamboat accident that killed a lot of people. They survived because, as Cat has always known, his sister is a witch, and witches can't drown, and just as the boat sank he wrapped his arms around her and hung on.
At first they are cared for by a witch named Mrs. Sharp, who has minor criminal tendencies but is basically a loving soul, at least where Cat is concerned. Their needs are supplied by a trust fund set up by the kind townspeople. Then, after Gwendolen shows remarkable skill at magic while taking lessons from a neighboring necromancer (Mr. Nostrum), both children have their fortunes told. Cat didn't want to know his and can't make heads or tails of it anyway. Gwendolen, on the other hand, becomes convinced that her destiny is to rule the world, and writes a letter to Chrestomanci-an enchanter of awesome power and prestige-who takes both children to his castle and puts them in school with his own children, Roger and Julia.
Now to understand what happens, you have to realize that Gwendolen is a very ambitious young witch, and she is driven to desperation by Chrestomanci's determination to ignore her talents and to prevent her from studying magic. Cat, on the other hand, seems completely unmagical, just a nice little boy who clings to his big sister a bit too much. Gwendolen's frustration, the enmity of Julia and Roger, and the icy indifference of Chrestomanci, build to what I think is the turning point of the story, when Gwendolen does something so bad that she gets spanked with a boot, and Cat gets slapped about the face for not doing anything to stop her.
Then Gwendolen's magic powers are taken from her. Cat retires to his bed that night, Gwendolen's vows of revenge ringing in his ears...and when he wakes up the next morning, his sister has gone and a nearly identical girl named Jane, from another world (ours, maybe), has taken her place. Jane is as bewildered about this as Cat is. It seems Gwendolen's last revenge was to flee into another universe, causing her parallel selves to be similarly moved along in a sort of quantum chain reaction. Now Cat has to help Jane adjust to living in a world utterly strange to her, cover up the fact that she isn't Gwendolen, and cover up the fact that he can't do magic when Chrestomanci promises to start giving him magic lessons, all of which is hard enough without bearing the consequences of the things Gwendolen set in motion before she left.
Not till the end of the book do you fully realize just how ill Gwendolen has used her poor devoted brother. In fact, what Cat must go through is quite hearbreaking, until he fully has the measure of his sister.
Cat is a lovable character, and you can't help feeling an urgent interest in his destiny as he gets caught up in scarier and tougher adventures. Somehow I was reminded of one of Dickens' brave little waif heroes, like Paul Dombey or Oliver Twist-with a touch of Harry Potter. With lots of magic, humor, suspense, and adorable characters, it's quite a page turner.
Recommended Age: 10+
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