Diana Wynne Jones’s “Charmed Life” pioneers themes of the fantasy genre

“Charmed Life” is the first installment in beloved fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series, which marries the British tradition of stories about orphans sent to live at the estates of wealthy relatives with a story of young witches and wizards growing into their magic.

“Charmed Life” was first published in 1977, but I only recently read it while taking a break from all the old, complex books that I read for English classes to read something fluffy and fun. I was already a huge fan of Jones’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a warm, humorous and altogether delightful work of young adult literature.

This children’s book is written in signature Jones style, mixing an off-beat, distinctly British sense of humor and sensibility with magic. She also characteristically connects her magical world to the “real” world by including characters from the reader’s world in the story, as she does in “Howl’s Moving Castle” and another of her classic books that I’ve read, “Fire and Hemlock.”

I was surprised to read some reviews of the book that considered it highly original. While I think Jones is a very creative writer, I sometimes find her books formulaic. However, when I consider that the genre of fantasy writing had barely begun in 1977, I can see why she was considered a pioneer.

However, I must say, as someone who grew up reading many, many fantasy books as a child and teenager, I think that many authors use the same concepts in better ways. In my opinion, “Harry Potter” is the pinnacle of writing about witches and wizards learning magic, as well as depicting the interaction between the magical and real world. And, although Jones briefly explores the concept of multiple universes in this book, no one has written about the subject in fantasy better than Phillip Pullman in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

In general, although I admire and enjoy Jones’s writing, I’m irritated by how whimsical often means arbitrary and nonsensical in her books. This is simply part of her style, but it’s not to my personal liking. I prefer books in which magic and the universe of the book have very clear rules that are followed—perhaps contradictorily, I prefer some realism in my fantasy.

Additionally, Jones tends to build to climaxes that I can sense are supposed to be very dramatic and with very high stakes, but in “Charmed Life,” as in other novels of hers, she doesn’t really build up the stakes or fully explain why the world is in peril, leaving me somewhat confused and detached.

However, the process of getting to the climax is invariably very enjoyable, which is why I continue to read her books. Her characters are usually quite striking and complex; some are so ridiculous that they almost become caricatures, but that only adds to the fun.

If you’re interested in seeing the beginnings of the contemporary fantasy genre, or if you’re a big Diana Wynne Jones fan, I recommend giving “Charmed Life” a read. She’s truly a giant of the genre, and “Charmed Life” is an early example of her considerable gifts.