Wednesday, March 4, 2009

March Book Review!

Well, doesn't time fly. It's been a month since our last book reviews, and more than a week *blush* since my pitiful last post. I have things to write about, too...the great cat pee disaster, snow, that sort of thing. But first, the Book Review Club! (Head over to Barrie Summy's blog for a list of this month's other reviews.)

Conrad’s Fate
By Diana Wynne Jones
HarperCollins (paperback), 2006
ISBN 978-0-06-074745

For years, books by Diana Wynne Jones have been one of my guilty pleasures. Even now, when reading kidlit fantasy could be considered part of my job, I get a nice rush of guilt settling down with yet another magical, funny, adventuresome DWJ.

Oddly, I’d gotten the idea somewhere that I wouldn’t like the Chrestomanci books. I am drawn to fantasies that have one foot in the real world, and most of the adventures of Christopher Chant and friends take place in alternate universes. Nope, I thought. I’ll stick to Archer’s Goon, in which a seemingly normal British family finds out that demigods are running municipal services, or The Ogre Downstairs, in which a magic chemistry set helps a blended family overcome its differences.

But one day I had nothing to read when eating out alone, so I picked up The Pinhoe Egg, the most recent Chrestomanci, set in a world that is just like ours except that magic and enchanters are commonplace. Normal and magical run up against each other…just my cup of mandragora tea. (Which probably would kill you but never mind.)

By now I’ve read all but a couple of the books and am hankering after the short stories. I probably should have read Conrad’s Fate before Pinhoe, but who knew I’d become an addict? And the way these books go zooming back and forth in time, it hardly matters.

The Chrestomanci books more or less follow Christopher Chant’s career from the discovery of his powers as an enchanter through his elevation to the role of Chrestomanci, the controller of magic in the thousands of alternate worlds that co-exist with ours. Some of the books are actually about him; in others, he simply sweeps in to help sort things out.

Here’s the thing about Diana Wynne Jones: Her plots are marvelous, intricate knots, delightful to unravel when you’ve got one of her books in front of you and, for me anyway, totally unmemorable a week or so later. This is a great boon to those of us who like to re-read favorite books, but it’s an odd attribute for such wonderful work.

What you do remember is her characters…proof that, while all novelists recycle and embellish the same basic plots, it’s a book’s characters that make it unique. And Christopher Chant just keeps getting better and better. Jones introduced him thirty years ago as a grown-up Chrestomanci, then slid back in time a decade later so we could follow his upbringing as an enchanter. He’s powerful and brilliant but deeply flawed, prone to arrogance, pouting, and, in his youth, thoughtless action. Jones manages to make him a figure of both romance and comedy, always a neat trick.

Conrad’s Fate is one of the back-sliding books, introducing us to Chant as a rebellious teenage student on the lam from the current Chrestomanci and searching alternate worlds for a fellow renegade, Millie. Add to the mix the unfortunate Conrad, a boy who is in the process of being as deeply misled and betrayed by his family as Chant was when we first met him. The two form a strong bond with each other—and with us—as they sort out who’s been misusing magic in Series Seven, Conrad’s native universe.

The two find jobs as manservants in Stallery Castle, a nest of aristocratic hypocrisy which Jones mines for expert comedy. They run afoul of the magical misdoings there, and do their bumbling bit toward unmasking the misdoers.

This isn’t the tightest of Jones’ plots—it’s a bit sloppy, actually, with a deus ex machina at nearly every turn. The discovery of Conrad’s secret talent is unnecessarily contrived. Conrad himself, though, is a heart-rending character who’s got you on his side from page one. Adding Christopher Chant is almost more than the heart can stand.

Spending time with Conrad, Christopher, and Millie is such a pleasure that I almost don’t feel guilty about it. Almost.


D.A. Riser said...

Hi Ellen! I enjoyed the review. This definitely sounds like a book that I'd enjoy.

Barrie said...

How nice to know I have these ahead of me! Also, I have a child who would love Diana Wynne Jones. Thank you, Ellen!