This is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers, and it’s one I chose to re-read recently as a sort of memorial to Diana Wynne Jones, who died in March. The book will make more sense and give a richer reading experience if you’ve previously read any of the other Chrestomanci books, particularly Charmed Life and the short story, The Stealer of Souls, but Jones gives enough information that you can enjoy this without having read the others (though you might get a bit confused about the exact relationship between Cat and Janet). Chrestomanci is the title of a government employee whose job it is to make sure that magic is not being misused, and he appears in several of Diana Wynne Jones’ books.
It’s the start of the summer holidays, and Joe and Marianne Pinhoe are given tasks to perform by their grandmother – who is chief witch, or Gammer, of the village of Ulverscote – which neither want to do: Joe is to work as a boot-boy up at Chestomanci Castle, and to spy on the inhabitants; and Marianne is to study with Gammer Pinhoe, since she is to become the next Gammer – a prospect Marianne doesn’t look forward to. However, the Farleighs from a neighbouring village turn up while the children are still at Woods House, and accuse Gammer Pinhoe of betraying a sacred trust. She denies this indignantly, magic flies in all directions, and when the Farleighs leave, it’s obvious that Gammer has lost her mind.
Up at Chestomanci Castle, a few miles away, the family have returned from their holidays – Chrestomanci, his wife Millie, their children Roger and Julia, nephew Eric (more often known as Cat), and Cat’s sort of sister, Janet. Janet and Julia are convinced they want to learn to ride, and as a result, a horse is procured. Syracuse, when he turns up, turns out to be a disaster as far as the two girls are concerned, and it’s Cat who eventually learns to understand the horse with magic.
The two strands of the story follow Marianne in Ulverscote as she tries to convince her family that Gammer is doing magic, even though Marianne’s father, Harry, has made very strong efforts to ensure that she isn’t, while the villagers contend with a plague of frogs, whooping cough and other ill-wishings; the second follows Cat as he discovers the countryside around the castle with Syracuse, and finds out about the unpleasant Jed Farleigh and the lack of ‘depth’ to the local landscape.
“Cat had not been in many woods in his life. He had lived first in a town and then at the Castle. But, like most people, he had a very clear idea of what a wood was like – tangled and dark and mysterious.
Home Wood was not like this at all. Any bushes seemed to have been tidied away, leaving nothing but tall dark-leaved trees, ferns and a few burly holly trees, with long straight paths in between. It smelt fresh and sweet and leafy. But the new kind of magic Cat had been learning through Syracuse told him that there should have been more to a wood than this. And there was no more. Even though he could see far off through the trees, there was no depth to the place. It only seemed to touch the front of his mind, like cardboard scenery.”
The strands come together when, on the sale of Woods House to Irene and Jason Yeldham – Jason is a herb magician and Irene is a designer, who happens to be born a Pinhoe – Marianne and Cat explore the attics looking for the cat, Nutcase, and she gives him a strange egg they find hidden there. The hatching of the egg proves to be the starting point for a lot of changes in the villages, and of the inhabitants thereof.
The characters are, as ever, very appealing. Marianne and Cat find themselves to be very alike: they’re both strong magic-users, but are very unsure of their talents, although Marianne has worries that are foreign to Cat. The new form of magic that Cat discovers through Syracuse and Marianne, ‘dwimmer’, is a kind of magic of the natural world, and it’s one that I think Jones introduces very neatly and well. Marianne’s family is entertaining and realistic, and I also like the relationship she has with Joe, who isn’t interested in magic, but more in machines. It’s also great to revisit characters such as Cat and Janet from Charmed Life, as well as to meet new ones.
Cat and Marianne have their own storylines which fuse satisfyingly, and their preoccupations are different. But they learn to use their powers in new ways, and learn and change and grow. Cat’s interactions with Syracuse (and, later, Klartch) and Marianne’s with Nutcase provide some humour, too, and the daily life at the Castle is entertaining and well-drawn.
There’s a theme to the book about power and its misuses, and potentially restrictive or even fatal misunderstandings. There’s a bit at the end which is as shocking to the reader as it is to Marianne, and it’s a reminder that in Jones’ books the villains are never mindlessly evil, but rather are humanly unpleasant and sometimes thoughtlessly cruel. I also like that the children solve their problems themselves (with only a little explanation and tidying up from the adults), and that Jones doesn’t tie everything up neatly at the end.