In my continued quest to eventually read all of Diana Wynne Jones' works, I've started picking up the Christomanci books (thanks to my local library). As it turns out, you could pretty much jump in with any book in the series, which is nice. Although some characters pop in for cameos in other stories, the books can all pretty much stand on their own, much in the same way the Howl books do.
I started with Charmed Life since it seemed like a good basis for all the rest, and just went on from there. My thoughts are as follows:
I'm a sucker for magical worlds, and on that front Jones delivers in spades. But more than that, Charmed Life was (for me) about relationships and self-discovery. Because the main character Cat spends most of the book unable to perform magic, it kind of took a back seat though magical events happened all around him all the time.
The basic storyline is that he and his bratty, but precocious sister are adopted by the Chrestomanci and taken under his care at his castle. Cat spends most of the book feeling nervous about the things happening around him and generally follows his sister around like a lost puppy, but of course, things eventually change for the better.
It's a lovely story, and Jones does such a fantastic job writing the various characters here - especially that awful sister of Cat's, who was practically a caricature. I was so frustrated with her! But I wasn't so frustrated that it was grating, making me want to put the book down.
I recommend Charmed Life for readers young and old, and also recommend it as your first read in this series.
The Lives of Christopher Chant
Though this story doesn't tie in directly to the events of Charmed Life, it does explain quite a lot of what leads up to it.
Lives is the backstory of Christopher Chant, who is the Chrestomanci in the book above. In that book, his character makes a comment to Cat about how he'd wasted most of his lives in his youth, and the line pretty much describes what we learn in this one.
A young Chant is caught up with some sneaky business with his greedy uncle that leads to his adoption by the Chrestomanci of the time. The adventures only get wilder from there. It doesn't just illustrate the ways Chant squandered his lives (he started with 9), though. The book also tackles important themes like responsibility, fairness, and being aware of the way you make the people around you feel.
I think I appreciated Lives more having read it after Charmed Life, but really it works both ways since you'll see this story's influence in the other's. You'll notice references here and there, something I always find fun. That and, you know, magic. Magic is awesome.
The Magicians of Caprona
Probably for more personal reasons, I found this book delightful. It has tons of personality, and doesn't spend too much time world-building so much as it focuses on the characters.
Caprona hones in on the younger kids of two huge families of magicians that are constantly at war with each other. There's a tiny bit of Romeo & Juliet tossed in there, but without the tragic ending. For adult readers, this story is, essentially, nothing new. Two families are in this ridiculous feud with each other and must overcome a greater, very real evil, by working together. The story focuses on the magical adventures of the young ones, and the narrative follows the thoughts of two young boys in particular.
I think what contributed most to my enjoyment of this one was the Big Family aspect: kids and aunts and cousins and animals everywhere and every personality type you'd expect to have in any big group. It reminded me of my own family, and of course, as I briefly mentioned at the start of this section, a lot of time was dedicated to fleshing out the characters despite the large cast. It gave the book a fantastic sense of movement and familiarity (speaking for myself), and yeah. It comes highly recommended by me.