Charmed Life is an orphan story, but Jones does something really quite brilliant. There is an orphan trope that goes like this: the orphan gets adopted by a family, but is a total brat. This may be because the orphan does not fit in yet; this may be because the orphan was raised in a tough orphanage or on the streets and doesn't have the etiquette or know how (yet) to make it in the Warbucks household. The orphan may act up; the orphan may get teased and tease back; the orphan almost always at least once tries to run away. The family with whom the orphan lives has a heart of gold, and there is always redemption of some sort Orphan stories end all fuzzy wuzzy and warm. Little House on the Prairie - the television show, not the books - was awash with orphans. Albert Ingalls fits neatly into this trope.
Because we are trained to think certain things about orphans in books, we think Gwendolyn Chant is going to be this kind of orphan. From the moment she arrives at Chrestomanci Castle, she's a total brat. She causes havoc. She breaks rules. She summons apparitions. She's terrible. And we have been trained to be on her side because she's an orphan. She can't be all bad, right? At some point, she's going to realize that the loving family who has adopted her loves her very much; there is going to be a warm and fuzzy ending. That's one of the shining brilliance of Charmed Life. Jones turns this particular orphan trope over on its head. Because Gwendolyn Chant is not going have a warm and fuzzy ending, because she's not a heart warming, misunderstood orphan. She's really evil. She's not just a bad girl, she's actually poisonously evil. It's rare to meet a purely evil character in a children's book, and she's also a doll like little girl. The best kind of evil character - completely unexpected! She has killed her nine-lived brother five times, and wants to see his throat slit another four times at the end. She's a sociopath. AND SHE ESCAPES at the end too! She's done all of these horrid things, and she's gets away with it at the end. She is truly one of the most memorable and comic (but disturbing too) characters in fantasy and children's literature, right up there with villainesses like Cruella DeVil, sitting at the same table with Veruca Salt.
The end isn't all fuzzy wuzzy and warm (ish, but not completely). It's really quite a brilliant book.
Jones knows her fantasy; she has sat at the feet of the masters that came before her and learned from them. She pays them a bit of homage, I think, in Charmed Life. When Cat and Janet meet the dragon in Michael's office, Janet falls under the dragon-spell, just like Smaug was able to do to Bilbo in The Hobbit (although Jones doesn't use Tolkien's term, the implication is there). And at the end, when the evil witches are going to kill Cat, they are going to do it in a stone, reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. This homage though; Jones, in my opinion, towers up there with Tolkien and Lewis. She's not a copy cat.
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a treat to listen to Gerard Doyle interpret the marvelous Diana Wynne Jones on audio. I've already read Charmed Life (several times), but (as always) listening to it was a rich, fulfilling, different experience. Jones takes some of the familiar tropes of the orphan story, and turns them on their heads (to say more would be to spoil too much) in her usual quirky, witty, very smart way. I never want Jones books to end.
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