harmed Life is the story of Eric Chant and his wicked older sister Gwendolyn. They are orphans living in a parallel universe where
magic really works. They are surrounded by witches, enchanters, sorcerors, fortune tellers - most of these magic users are capable of just simple, ineffective spells
but some are quite powerful indeed. Eric has no magical ability himself, but Gwendolyn shows a lot of promise of developing into a practicing witch.
The most powerful magician in Eric's world is a wealthy official named Chrestomanci, who lives in a huge magical castle. When Chrestomanci
hears of the plight of Eric (called "Cat" by everyone, because he has nine lives) and Gwendolyn, he invites the two to come and live with him and he will
further their magical education.
Gwendolyn is excited by Chrestomanci's offer, she imagines learning powerful magic that will enable her to cause all kinds of mischief - we quickly learn
that although Eric is a likable sort, his older sister is selfish, stubbborn and possesses a mean streak. Gwendolyn also is resourceful and creative, and she soon demonstrates
these traits in her battles with Chrestomanci.
Wynne-Jones does a fantastic job describing creative magic spells. Gwendolyn causes all kinds of havoc trying to demonstrate her magical prowess, I especially
liked her enchanting the figures on the stained glass windows in the church so that they came alive during services. Gwendolyn is trying to prove to Chrestomanci that she is already
an accomplished magician, and thus Chrestomanci should skip with the introductory material and immediately reveal to her how to perform the most powerful spells. Naturally, Gwendolyn's
behavior has an opposite effect on Chrestomanci. Eventually, Gwendolyn figures out how to escape from Chrestomanci by slipping into a parallel universe where she
can set herself up as queen - but Gwendolyn's departure from Cat's world has the effect of pulling a "replacement Gwendolyn" in for a third parallel universe to take her place.
This doppelganger, named Janet, looks just like Gwendolyn, but acts completely different.
I read Charmed Life because I think it won a number of awards, so I assumed it would be a terrific story. Upon reading it, I was a bit disappointed.
While the characters are interesting and the magic descriptions are exceptional (I also liked the small talking dragon in the laboratory)
I felt that the plot was somewhat weak. The problem is that the main hero, Cat, is too passive. His wicked sister Gwendolyn steals the show, but unfortunately she
doesn't remain on stage throughout the entire book. Janet, who replaces Gwendolyn, is an interesting character on her own, but after her arrival, the plot devolves
into a series of implausible misunderstandings - the last chapter of the book involves all the characters saying things like: "But I thought you were doing this because..."
only to have the next character reply "But I was assuming that you intended to do that because..."
- the reader can't help but feel that if only the characters would talk to one another, all the shenanigans would not have resulted.
The mysterious villan Mr. Nostrum is also an intriguing
character (the bad guys steal the show!), but his sinister plot is only hinted at for too long. Only at the end of the book is Nostrum's diabolical scheming revealed, but
it merely seems to be a device to demonstrate his evil intentions, rather than a genuine threat. Maybe because this is a children's book, Wynn-Jones didn't want to make the
villains too scary.