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Charmed Life is a 1977 novel by British children's author Diana Wynne Jones. It was the first book in the Chrestomanci series of novels to be published. The series name comes from the way the plots involve a series of powerful nine-lived enchanters who carry the title Chrestomanci. Carriers of the title are essentially government administrators who supervise the use of magic on Earth.

Plot summary

Charmed Life opens with the orphaned brother and sister, Eric and Gwendolen Chant, being summoned to Chrestomanci Castle after Gwendolen writes a letter to the current Chrestomanci, a distant relative, presumably begging him to take them in. Gwendolen is something of a magical virtuoso, spoiled by neighbors and her parents when they were alive. Her brother Eric (nicknamed Cat) is rather a slouch in that department, preferring to play the violin—at which he is also lamentably mediocre. Due to this unfortunate lack of talent, Gwendolen turns the violin into a cat, named Fiddle.

Upon arriving at the castle, which is maintained by the suave and charming but always authoritative Chrestomanci, they are taught by a private tutor in a small class with Chrestomanci's two children Julia and Roger. Unfortunately, Julia and Gwendolen immediately butt heads, and Cat appears to have no magical skill at all. Gwendolen is also furious that she is expected to start her magical training at an elementary level again. She takes out her anger on Chrestomanci in increasingly complex ways, eventually leading to the removal of her magic powers. The next morning, Gwendolen is gone, leaving a clueless lookalike named Janet in her place.

Janet (from our own world, World 12B; the "worlds" in the stories are parallel universes) and Cat try to conceal the substitution, while at the same time dealing with various messes Gwendolen has left. Despite Cat thinking he is not magically talented, the shrewd Janet realizes after seeing a book of matches with many gone, that Cat, like Chrestomanci, is a nine-lived enchanter. This is confirmed when Cat strikes one of the matches, and is immediately enveloped in flames.

Eventually, the characters learn that Gwendolen has been leeching Cat's magic and using it for herself since he was born. The plot culminates when she returns, leading an army of disaffected minor magical practitioners against Chrestomanci, who is responsible for the proper use of magic in the country. Things look bad until Cat is finally able to take his powers for his own and aid Chrestomanci in defeating their opponents. Despite Chrestomanci's attempts to appeal to her better nature, Gwendolen uses the last of what magic she can lay her hands on to return to her new world where she is queen, sealing herself permanently in that world and stranding Janet.

In the denouement, Chrestomanci admits that he and his aides had been monitoring the children all along, were fully aware of the Gwendolen/Janet switch and remained quiet because they wanted to know whether Cat had been a willing ally of Gwendolen all along (which he had not). Janet decides to remain in Chrestomanci's world and become his ward, while Chrestomanci agrees to train Cat as his successor.

Characters

The character of Christopher Chant (the Chrestomanci in this novel) appears as a young boy in The Lives of Christopher Chant and as a teenager in Conrad's Fate.

Eric Emelius "Cat" Chant
The protagonist of the novel. He is a kind boy, but he follows others a bit more than he should. His sister, Gwendolen, technically rules him, though he doesn't mind. He loves playing the violin, despite being quite terrible at it and also suffers from chronic car-sickness. He has three of his nine lives remaining, having lost his first life when he only just survived being born, his second when Gwendolen had put his lives into a book of matches, the third when he drowned in the flood that killed his parents, the fourth when Gwendolen used it to turn his fiddle into a cat (which he kept as a pet and named Fiddle), the fifth when Gwendolen used it to take her into her new world where she reigned as queen, and the sixth when he burned a match himself in an attempt to prove Janet wrong. The matchbox is his main weakness. Cat is training to be the next Chrestomanci.
Gwendolen Chant
The main antagonist of the novel. She is a powerful witch, although it is eventually revealed that she did not have any witchcraft of her own in the first place and only borrowed magic from Cat. Although she was very motherly to Cat in the past, she became nastier and bossier to him as the story progresses. She became greedy and wanted to be the queen, like her "fortune" said she would be. When the steam boat crashed, she survived because she was a witch, and could not drown. Cat had believed he had survived the flood by holding on to Gwendolen. She contained a mixture of admiration and hatred for Chrestomanci, partly because he had such powerful magic, and partly because he had supposedly not recognized her prowess.
Janet Chant
Gwendolen's counterpart from another world. Before being pulled into World Twelve A, she had lived in a nice, ordinary home in a world similar to ours. While Gwendolen was bossy and bold, Janet was quite shy and jolly. No one was to know that Gwendolen had spirited away to another world, so Cat and Janet had to pretend Janet was Gwendolen. When they were trying to keep it a secret, it is later revealed that Chrestomanci had known about it all along. She later decides to stay in Cat's world and becomes Chrestomanci's ward.
Julia Chant
Julia is one of Chrestomanci's two children. She is quite fat and normally nice, but proves to have a vengeful streak when Gwendolen provokes her. Julia's magic seems to center on a handkerchief. However, her magic is lesser than Cat's, and she often finds her attempts at revenge disrupted by him.
Roger Chant
Roger is Julia's brother and the other child of Chrestomanci. He tends to be laid back and not as hot-tempered as his sister. Roger is more inclined to cooperate with Cat and to entertain him. He usually ignores Gwendolen, unless things get too out of hand.

Awards

The novel won the Guardian Award in 1978 and was commended for the 1977 Carnegie Medal. It also won the German Preis der Leseratten.

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