The DWJ Project: The Lives of Christopher Chant

After much hemming and hawing, I decided that I needed to start the re-read with The Lives of Christopher Chant, as it was — so far as I recall — the first DWJ book I ever read.

So I think what I’m going to do with this project is post an entry for each book, and put the non-spoilery stuff up top, then hide the spoilery stuff behind a cut. (I’ll put in a warning, for those reading this by RSS feed or other methods that might show the whole entry at once.)

Mind you, it’s hard to know what to say. I love this book in that unreserved way you can generally only get by forming your attachment in childhood, when things can bypass your brain and go straight to your heart. The easy thing to do is point you at the recommendation I wrote back when I was doing those on a monthly basis — with two corrections, those being that I spelled Throgmorten’s name wrong there (how could I make such a mistake?) and somewhat mis-spoke on what constitutes the unifying thread of the story. It’s really more about Christopher’s spirit travels than it is about the Chrestomanci business.

If you want an introduction to Diana Wynne Jones’ work, I’d say this is a good place to start. It has a lot of her hallmarks: children with more power than they’re initially aware of, hard bits the story doesn’t flinch away from, choices with consequences. It also sets you up for the rest of the Chrestomanci books, all of which take place later, though half of which (Charmed Life, Witch Week, and the Magicians of Caprona) were written sooner. (When I get to Charmed Life, I’ll have more to say about the chronological relationship of those two.) I really love the concept of the Related Worlds, and the notion behind just how nine-lived enchanters come to exist, and I also love the way the story seems to go beyond the boundaries of the frame. Just how did Cosimo Chant and Miranda Argent end up married, anyway? What happens with Fennig and Oneir after Christopher leaves school? What’s the tragic tale of Mordecai Roberts and Miss Rosalie, before the book begins? We get hints, but nothing extensive, and if you tell me there’s fanfic out there answering those questions, I won’t be at all surprised.

But the stuff I really want to say involves specifics, so let’s go behind the cut for that.

It’s interesting to wonder how many of my own narrative habits can be traced back to this book, or whether I’m just inventing patterns. Names having significance? I know I always get chills when Christopher calls Mordecai Tacroy, after they figure out Gabriel’s lives have gone to Series Eleven. Child characters getting to kick ass with their skills? I read this several years before Ender’s Game, though that’s the book I usually point to as my exemplar of the motif. Male characters being tall and dark-haired? That seems to be my brain’s default (see Exhibit A: all the Merrimans when I ran Memento — one of whom was named Christopher), though I usually try to prod myself away from it. I know “Once a Goddess” had its roots in an anthropological article about Kumari, but it’s entirely possible I glommed onto that idea because my brain had been primed for it by the situation with the Living Asheth.

Scenes I love: “EMPTY YOUR POCKETS, CHANT!” The Goddess’ portent from Asheth. Christopher lighting his seventh life on fire after giving it to the Dright. Everything involving Throgmorten. Everything with Tacroy after the Castle staff arrest him. I heart Tacroy in general, and his steady, consistent lying as they question him makes me go squish inside.

It’s definitely interesting, the hard stuff tucked away inside this story (as is generally the case with DWJ’s books). She doesn’t linger on it too hard, but it’s there, in a way I can’t help but think is very carefully calibrated for the youth of its audience: if you’re not ready to see it, you can glide right past, but all the important stuff is there once you see it. The butchering of the mermaid tribe, for example — this time through, I particularly noticed Tacroy pointing out that while he didn’t know at the time, he also didn’t quit once he found out. I don’t think it’s just because of the Dright’s orders; the more I think about him working at that job for years, the more I find myself pondering what it did to his character. The Living Asheth business is another good example: glancingly horrific as you read it, increasingly so the more you stop and think about it.

The one thing that doesn’t come across as appallingly as it might is the business of Christopher dying (six times during the course of the book). There’s definitely a bit in the middle there, when he breaks his neck twice in quick succession, where the general effect is pretty flippant. Which is understandable, given that he’s got nine lives . . . but to the extent that there’s horror in that idea, I have to imagine it for myself. We never get much sense that Christopher is psychologically affected by impalement, massive head trauma, two broken necks, and twice being lit on fire, even when he doesn’t know what’s going on. To some extent that can probably be credited to the way he keeps dying in the Anywheres, and therefore thinks of it as a dream — but aside from the bit where he careens all over the hospital shrieking that he’s missing cricket practice, he takes it in stride to a surprising degree.

Anyway. I love this book, and I love Christopher; in fact, my disappointment with Conrad’s Fate can largely be summed up as “not enough Christopher, dammit.” I’ll end with a question for those of you who have read the book: how old do you think he is, anyway? A note at the front of the edition I have now says it all takes place at least twenty-five years before Charmed Life, which at least gives me a ballpark range for his age in that book, but I didn’t notice any numbers being put on either the time period (turn of the century-ish?) or his age in this novel. I’d guess he’s maybe ten or so? But I’m curious to see what other people think.

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: The Lives of Christopher Chant”

  1. la_marquise_de_

    Like a number of her books, I was adult when this one came out, and I’ve always rather regretted that, as I suspect it has led to me not loving it as much as I might. There is a lot I like in it, but part of me resisted the idea of Chrestomanci as a child: I’d grown up with him as the adult who solved things and this was a bit disorienting.

    • Marie Brennan

      Whereas I read this before anything else, so always had Christopher in my head; the fascinating bit was seeing who he ended up being as an adult.

      There’s an odd split for me, between the books of hers I read as a kid and those I read later (the dividing line more or less being around the start of college). I don’t think there’s anything in that later grouping I love as much as my favorites from the early days, and it probably has to do with that change in perspective, as much as (or more than) a change in the books themselves — by then I was mostly reading newer material as it came out. A lot does depend on one’s life context, as well as the story.

  2. akashiver

    This is probably my favourite Jones book, for all the reasons you mentioned.

  3. xicanti

    I read this for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and was pleased with it for all the reasons you mentioned. I love how it ties in with the other books, too. I could see how each of Christopher’s adventures pushed him into becoming the adult Chrestomanci I knew in the first three published books.

    I think he’s meant to be eleven or twelve here. He’s fifteenish in CONRAD’S FATE, and he tells Conrad he’s lived at Chrestomanci Castle for three years.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ah, good point. (I’ve only read that book once, so the detail had slipped my mind.) That works; I figured he must be somewhere in that range.

  4. Marie Brennan

    I dunno — Charmed Life has its own hard edges. (Most of her books do.) But I’ll admit that Cat doesn’t have any culpability that fully compares to the way Christopher was helping the Wraith all along.

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  6. Anonymous

    I printed a set and tucked them with my emergency cash in my wallet. Obviously you can’t do it before this trip, but now I know I have codes with me even if my phone doesn’t work.

  7. Anonymous

    I can’t think of any society in which women in no way whatsoever have the shittier end of the stick

    Inasmuch as we can judge such things, hunter-gatherer societies seem to be pretty thoroughly egalitarian. Which is the reverse of the “cave man” image everybody defaults to, but the truth is that you get much less gender division at that level, not more. And if there’s an intractable conflict, they tend to solve it by one party or the other packing up and leaving to join a different group.

    What’s the effect of matrilineality? I’ve read it’s not necessarily a panacea for women’s issues in general — “women make the beer, men drink it” — but it solves sexual lock-up issues, right?

    Most people have no idea what matrilineality actually means. It is not our pattern, gender-swapped, at least not in the real world. Real matrilineal societies are still patriarchal, not matriarchal, so inheritance goes from a man to his sister’s son, who belongs to the same lineage. (His own children belong to his wife’s lineage.) Whether a woman inherits anything from her mother depends on their property laws, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with their lineage model, but there aren’t any real societies in which men hold no property, and it all belongs to their wives/sisters/daughters. As for fidelity, in theory it doesn’t have to matter; the children will belong to their mother’s lineage regardless of who the father is. In practice, it’s still a pretty big deal.

    But yes, there could be fantasy societies in which that isn’t true. (The only short story I’ve set there doesn’t touch on this, but I do have one setting in which a given person may have up to four people their society would consider to be their parents: a mother, a father, a sire, and a mentor.) And there could be magical paternity testing, too. But I think that falls under the umbrella I mentioned in another comment, of magical birth control: it’s the wrong kind of wish fulfillment to pass muster with a certain block of the readership.

  8. Anonymous


    Which out of Prince of Thorns and Martin’s ASOIAF do you think has ‘on-screen’ rape?

  9. Anonymous

    >>You can, of course, go further than that. Comedies do this all the time, as do certain kinds of action movie, with the combatants tossing off witty quips right after being punched in the face.

  10. Anonymous

    I have to admit (and I say this without having read Kress’ book, so I’m not speaking to her specifically, but to the general pattern of writing-advice books) that I think sometimes they overemphasize the first sentence, to the detriment of the first paragraph, first page, first scene. A beginning has to do a lot of work, but you generally can’t do all of it in a single sentence, and so you pick which hook you want to sink first. For “A Heretic by Degrees,” the first sentence rams a problem up in your face, in a single-line paragraph; the next sentence, which is also a paragraph, presents forward movement on that problem: “The Councillor Paramount said, ‘Then we must look outside the world for help.'” By contrast, “Kingspeaker” presents you with a question — if she hasn’t spoken with her own voice, whose voice has she been using? “The Gospel of Nachash” presents you with a tone (which cues a host of associations for many readers) and also a relatively obvious AU turn: humans were created on the seventh day, so if we’re still on the sixth, something different is happening.

    But the first sentence is only the thin end of the wedge, and the way it gets hammered in varies from story to story. Some first sentences are really boring when quoted on their own, but in context they’re the feint that sets up the real attack of the second sentence, or maybe the whole paragraph builds something one sentence can’t do on its own, or whatever.

  11. Anonymous

    When she talks about similarities between her characters, I nod at some and blink at others, and wonder if she didn’t see the similarities elsewhere, or simply didn’t bring them up. (Upon reflection, I see what she means about the commonality of Torquil and Tacroy, and also, after much more reflection, Thomas Lynn and the Goon. But what about Tacroy and Thomas, and also Howl? Or for that matter, Mark and Herrel, who are a straight-up deployment of her habit of “splitting” a character type and using different facets?)

    YES. I thought just the same. And yeah, I came to the same conclusion of wishing again I could have met her and thanked her.

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