The Lives of Christopher Chant

by Diana Wynne Jones

Cover image

Series: Chrestomanci #4
Publisher: HarperTrophy
Copyright: 1988
Printing: 2001
ISBN: 0-06-447268-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 330

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This is the fourth book in publication order of the Chrestomanci series, but in story sequence it's a prequel to Charmed Life, telling the story (unsurprisingly) of Christopher Chant. Christopher shows up as one of the adult supporting characters in Charmed Life, and reading the books in the opposite order would change one's reactions to them in a few details, but I don't think it would hurt either. I read this book as part of the The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume I omnibus, which is the book reflected in the sidebar information.

Christopher Chant is the child of very rich parents, rich enough that he rarely sees them and is largely raised by household staff. He doesn't get much of a chance to form an emotional attachment even with them, since his nursery maids and governesses are constantly quitting. The marriage of his parents is not particularly happy; the book opens with an account of them arguing indirectly by addressing the servants, and that constant fighting appears to be behind much of the domestic turmoil. But this is the only life Christopher has known, and he has the emotional escape of retreating into the Anywheres. These are alternate worlds to which he can go easily in dreams.

This sort of YA novel as written by most other authors would reflect the family turmoil in Christopher's inner turmoil and emotional baggage. One of the fascinating, and endearing, qualities of this book is that Jones doesn't do that. One often feels sorry for Christopher, but it's very rare for him to feel sorry for himself. Instead, he tackles the world in an inquisitive and matter-of-fact way that's both good reading and often quite funny. He's been wandering through Anywheres for as long as he can remember and seeing things people have no idea he's seen, which combined with his estrangement from his parents means that he develops some rather quirky beliefs about how the world works. Watching him work through those is sometimes more interesting than the main plot.

This is another book, like Charmed Life, where none of the adult characters are particularly likeable. Christopher's apparent salvation from a life of being mostly ignored comes from his mother's brother. (Jones, throughout this book, does a great job of matching narrative voice to Christopher's perceptions, putting the reader squarely in his head and making his view of the world seem the most reasonable.) Discovery of his nighttime traveling ability and exploration of his capabilities there leads quickly to a set of experiments that set off reader alarm bells that Christopher is in no position to notice. Eventually, this develops into a complex and action-filled plot, particularly once (echoing Charmed Life) Christopher gains an unlikely female ally.

Jones's storytelling is effective, and the world-building, while slight, is good enough for story purposes. Where I thought The Lives of Christopher Chant fell short was in character appeal and dynamism. Christopher has very little agency through much of the story, and makes very few meaningful decisions on his own. Life is mostly something that happens to him, and while the detached analysis and sometimes-inaccurate conclusions he brings to it are entertaining, the wait for him to figure out what the reader already knows and do something about it becomes frustrating. The plot is, in that sense, a little too well-crafted: only at the end does Christopher have both enough knowledge and enough leverage to act. This can be read as a compliment to Jones's villains, who are thoughtful and know what they're doing, but it gives the story an odd dramatic feel.

The conclusion does make up for a lot. Once the Goddess stops moping, she becomes a great character, and it's fun to watch Christopher turn the story on its ear and apply life lessons learned in unconventional ways. One moment of unexpected loyalty has deep emotional significance and resonance, in part because Christopher has had so little agency in the rest of the book. There's also plenty of action and suspense, and by the end of the story one is very happy to see the villains defeated. If the whole story had that pace and energy, I'd be more unstinting in my praise; as is, most of it is setup, and you're going to have to like Christopher to not get bored with it. Luckily, I did, so it mostly worked.

This is good YA storytelling if you're in the mood for that, although not something I'd go out of my way to find.

Followed by Conrad's Fate.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-06-01

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21