The DWJ Project: Conrad’s Fate

The people up at Stallery Manor keep “pulling the probabilities” — manipulating chance to change the world into one that’s more favorable to them. The problem is, this causes all kinds of spillover changes, most of which go unnoticed by people elsewhere in the world (things have always been that way, right?), but which are readily apparent to people living in the town of Stallchester. Conrad, a boy of twelve, gets sent up there to become a servant and sniff around for the cause of these problems . . . and also to kill somebody. You see, Conrad has an evil fate: some kind of bad karma hanging around from a past life, when he failed to take out somebody he was supposed to. If he doesn’t make good on that now, he’ll die before the year is out.

And then things get more complicated when an older boy named Christopher shows up, from another world, looking for his missing friend Millie.

Yes, this is another Chrestomanci book (and I think the only other story that shows us Christopher in his pre-Chrestomanci days). I bore it a bit of a grudge the first time I read it because I wanted MOAR CHRISTOPHER DANGIT, and that isn’t this book; I liked it better now that I was reading the book it actually was. Really, what it is could be described as “the Chrestomanci series meets Gosford Park / Downton Abbey;” a lot of the story revolves around the servants-eye view of a grand household, first as vast amounts of effort are spent on keeping three people in style, then as a bunch of guests show up.

The rest of the details go behind the cut.

Okay, I still want MOAR CHRISTOPHER DANGIT . . . in ways that, on reflection, would have made it not so much a Diana Wynne Jones novel. You see, there are these tantalizing hints of romance and associated drama, to the point where I think there’s a great YA story that could be written out of this material, instead of the children’s story we get here. (Certainly that story might make Gabriel come off better; he seems a little bit clueless here, what with ignoring Millie until after she’s vanished.) In particular, the throwaway comment about Christopher breaking into Gabriel’s safe to steal the gold ring with his life in it is a scene I really want to read. More than I want to read about Conrad, honestly, which is why this book falls a bit flat for me.

It’s also kind of structural. Conrad goes up to Stallery with a mission, but it sort of gets put on hold while he helps Christopher run around looking for Millie. Then we find out it was bogus anyway, which leaves Conrad without momentum, as the consequences of that deception get deferred until the very end, after Gabriel has shown up to ex machina explicate what’s been going on at Stallery. I think it might have been easier to tie everything together if Christopher had been at the center, instead of Conrad.

Also, I have to ask a question about the end, and the assertion that Conrad can’t stay in Series Twelve, because people can’t leave their world forever. Uh, don’t we have three examples saying that isn’t true? Gwendolen/Janet, Millie, and Tacroy. Okay, so Gwendolen hopped along her own Series; maybe that’s different. But the other two? Even if you go back to my post about Charmed Life and assume that Gwendolen and Millie managed to move permanently because a life got destroyed (which I still don’t buy in Millie’s case), none of that explains Tacroy. It’s a weird inconsistency that bugs me.

I don’t think this book is terrible, but I don’t think it works entirely well for fans of other Chrestomanci books, because it doesn’t do enough of the Chrestomanci stuff to satisfy, but has too much Chrestomanci (compared with Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona) to make the focus on Conrad quite work. It might work better for readers who encounter it first.

Next up, probably Witch Week.

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: Conrad’s Fate”

  1. roselet

    I really enjoyed Conrad’s Fate, despite coming to it as someone who grew up with DWJ and Chrestomanci. But then, I’m not as attached to Christopher as you seem to be. I definitely think there were parts of CF that I would have loved to see expanded, and Conrad’s obsession with his fate grated a bit, but it wouldn’t have fixed it for me if Christopher had been the main character. (Magicians of Caprona didn’t have that much Chrestomanci in it either, and that worked…) I think this might just be a personal taste thing, though, as I enjoy the Chrestomanci books for the story rather than the presence of Chrestomanci (and they aren’t my favourites of DWJ’s books anyway).

    It’s really interesting reading your opinions as often they’re quite different from mine, even though I can see where you’re coming from. I can’t wait to see what you write about Witch Week! 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m definitely attached to Christopher. But the difference between this and The Magicians of Caprona is that the latter has much less Chrestomanci in it, and when he shows up, he’s there basically to serve the protagonists’ agenda. In this book, he’s around almost from the start, and has his own goal he’s pursuing (i.e. rescuing Millie), that takes up a goodly portion of the book but only involves Conrad tangentially.

      Mind you, I’m definitely being critical when I say that. It’s harder for me not to be critical these days; I see stuff too much with a writer’s eye. But for the most part it doesn’t get in the way of me enjoying the enjoyable stuff, if that makes sense, so I don’t mind (too much).

      • roselet

        That’s true. I almost wonder whether I don’t find it annoying because as a child I was often very much like Conrad – following someone else, being downtrodden, etc. And I found the Stallery subplots much more interesting than the Millie one.

        I know what you mean re: being critical/writer’s eye, but I think maybe in this case it’s more personal preference than a flaw in the actual writing? (Although criticism is generally based on personal preference anyway.) I’d be interested to see what you write about House of Many Ways and the Game, which to me are quite weak (especially the former!). I probably forgive DWJ’s earlier books because they have emotional significance for me, whereas I find a lot of her most recent work a bit clunky. Have you noticed that?

        • Marie Brennan

          I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s annoying; just that it doesn’t hook me as intensely as a different approach might. And yeah, it does kind of map a bit to earlier books vs. later ones; I can’t be sure how much of that has to do with when I read them, but I think a lot of her strongest work, at least in structural terms, was on the earlier side. (She’s always been able to turn a great phrase and make up really vivid characters.)

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