Conrad's Fate: A Chrestomanci Story
by Diana Wynne Jones
Published by HarperCollins Australia
384 pages, 2005
Buy it online
Eight Lives Left
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series has been going for many years. The novels are loosely linked, in that they are set in the same universe -- or rather, in the same set of universes. Sometimes a character from one story appears in another, but, unlike most series these days, the novels pretty much stand-alone. You don't need to read them in any special order. You don't even have to have read any previous novel to understand what is going on. In fact, Conrad's Fate contains a brief note by the author explaining her universe and then telling you not to worry about it: the world in which it takes place is the only one relevant to the story.
That means a lot to the average reader in these days in a world where publishers sometimes spread a single story over three books, forcing the reader to buy them all to find out how the tale ends.
Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series features 12 "related worlds" or 12 "series," each split into at least nine alternative universes (except Eleven, a single world which doesn't play a part in this novel). Our universe is Series Twelve B, which hasn't bothered with magic since the Middle Ages. In all the other worlds, magic is normal. You can study it at school. The local butcher, baker and candlestick-maker might belong to a Magicians' Circle, meeting for port and cigars every week. The magic does, of course, have a tendency to wreck television reception.
Earth itself varies from Series to Series. The Earth of Series Five, for example, is all islands. In Series Seven, in which Conrad's Fate takes place, England is a part of mainland Europe. The English Alps, where Conrad lives, are a fabulous place for skiing.
Conrad's family live in the village of Stallchester in the Alps. His father is dead and the family business, a bookshop, is run by his Uncle Alfred. Conrad's mother spends all her time writing feminist books upstairs, ignoring everyone. They can't get TV on their side of town because of all the magic coming from Stallery Mansion. Worse still, someone up there is making changes in the universe for business purposes, even if the changes do only involve books in the shop and mailbox colors. Conrad, who has been planning to attend the local high school, is horrified when his uncle tells him that there will be no more school for him. Apparently he has some bad karma left over from a previous life, where he failed to kill someone evil, and if he doesn't go to the mansion and fix it now, he will be dead within a year. Well, that's what Uncle Alfred and his Magicians' Circle say, anyway. Armed with a magic wine-cork, Conrad is sent to work as a servant at the castle where, he is told, he will know immediately who his victim is to be and can call up a being known as a Walker to help him.
At the castle, he meets another boy with a mission, Christopher "Smith". If you have read Wynne Jones' The Lives of Christopher Chant, it won't take long to work out who this so-called Smith is, but it doesn't matter, because Christopher eventually explains his mission and background to Conrad. Christopher is the heir to the job of Chrestomanci, the head magician who is responsible for looking after the magic in Series Twelve A, making sure nobody abuses it. He doesn't like it much, but there's no choice, since he is the only enchanter in his world with nine lives, apart from the current Chrestomanci, Gabriel De Witt.
The two boys run around frantically, trying to work out what is going on at the castle, being flung from one universe to another and, in between, trying to cope with their lives as trainee servants in a highly formal rich home. Dramatic revelations are made in the last couple of chapters, but it's no surprise to learn that Uncle Alfred is a villain and had his own agenda in sending Conrad to the mansion.
Conrad's Fate is bright, breezy and very funny, full of over-the-top characters and crazy situations. You can't really take too seriously a novel in which the magical object is a wine-cork and someone is making changes in the entire universe to fiddle the stock market, but that's OK because neither does the author. It's the sort of thing you would expect from the author of The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, a tongue-in-cheek encyclopedia of the various clichés of heroic fantasy.
Conrad's Fate should appeal to children who like Joan Aiken's alternative universe novels, which have a similar flavor and sense of humor. | May 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.