by Diana Wynne Jones
The third Chrestomanci novel takes place in a different world from the first two, a world pretty much exactly like our modern world, except for two dangerously unbalanced facts: (1) almost everyone is a witch, and can't help being that way from about age 11 onward, and (2) witchcraft is punishable by death at the stake, and an inquisition goes around catching anyone who has been denounced as a witch, torturing confessions out of them, and burning them all the time. So basically, everyone lives in mortal fear, and it seems that most witch burnings happen because witches turn on each other to protect themselves. It's horrible.
Now the story takes place in a co√ęd boarding school where, in a certain 6th grade class, several students realize at about the same time that they are witches. What they do with the knowledge varies with their personality, life experiences, and position in the classroom's savage pecking order. But they are all in terrible danger. Finally things become so desperate that they end up summoning the debonair enchanter Chrestomanci out of his own world, where he diagnoses the root of the problem: their world should not even exist. It simply isn't possible. Something has to be done to restore reality to its correct parameters, but what it will take is the limits of Chrestomanci's powers, the cooperation of a group of 6th graders who hate each other's guts, and a big stroke of luck!
It's another suspenseful and magical story, full of humor and well-drawn characters, and featuring such high jinks as a magically enhanced game of Simon Says, a rain of shoes, a broomstick that behaves like a dog, and a breathtakingly funny scene in which a girl can't stop herself from commenting on the food, at gruesome length, during a formal luncheon.
You'll just have to do your own best to picture the five children who summon Chrestomanci-including a girl in jodhpurs, a hard cap, and a riding crop; a girl in a puffy pink dress with frills and ballet slippers; and two boys who have ridden cross-country on a hoe and a mop, wearing nothing but football cleats and the sort of "little blue gym shorts" they used to wear in the 1980's (they were skiving off P.E.). They must have been quite a sight, and it's no wonder they spend most of their time trying to hide behind each other.
I saw the solution to the story coming, but I liked it anyway, and I especially loved the scene in which "Simon Says" runs his mouth off in geography class. The different viewpoints of the students are interestingly captured, a couple of times, by showing their contrasting entries in a journal they are supposed to write in. And it's also clear that someone worked hard picking the historical figures that each of the students named in turn. One that almost slipped by me without being noticed was the mention of Galileo being executed, which didn't happen in our universe. And by the way, the title refers to the week between Halloween (Oct 31) and Bonfire Night a.k.a. Guy Fawkes Day (Nov 5), which is sort of like the British "fourth of July."
Recommended Age: 10+
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