07 April, 2009

Conrad's Fate, or: The foolish man builds his house upon a crack in reality

You may notice I've done a little redecorating! The black background was giving me flashbacks to my late teens when I thought dying my hair black and getting umpteen piercings was daring and subversive. OK, so I still have the piercings, but I have come to accept my completely average brown hair actually rather suits me. Where was I? Oh, right! Slightly new colour scheme, which will hopefully make this blog a little easier to read. Expect me to fiddle with it several more time before I'm finally happy with it. I'm trying not to give in to my inner 6-year-old Disney Princess and change the whole thing to varying shades of pink, but I'm not making any promises.

There are many unanswered questions in this world. Why is it still unacceptable for science fiction to be someone's genre of choice? How is it that the Twilight movie was actually superior to the book? Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round broke down? And how does Diana Wynne Jones, one of the best writers of children's fantasy - of any fantasy - alive today, continue to fly under most people's radars when she's been writing her amazing books for four decades?

This rec is dedicated to Jen, who apparently prefers wizards to cannibals.

Conrad's Fate (2005)

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

You've read this before, haven't you? Guilty as charged! This was the first book I read in Jones' Chrestomanci series, and remains my favourite, although The Pinhoe Egg has to be a close second. I still remember how disappointed I was when I discovered that Conrad didn't really feature in any other books, although I live in hope that he'll make a reappearance someday!

What's it all about, anyway? Conrad lives with his mother, a distant parent and unsuccessful feminist writer, and his uncle, an amateur magician, above the family's bookshop. Conrad's elder sister used to single-handedly hold the family together, but after she left for university her responsibilities all fell to the much younger Conrad. Conrad means to follow his sister's footsteps and get out of Dodge, but his uncle has quite different ideas.

Someone up at Stallery Mansion is pulling the possibilities - making small changes which result in quite unexpected happenings. Sometimes the postboxes change colour; sometimes Conrad's favourite series of books has a completely new set of stories. Conrad's uncle explains that Conrad has terribly bad kharma because of something he did - or perhaps didn't do - in a past life. But he can avoid his own bad fate if he finds and kills whoever is pulling the possibilities.

Conrad isn't exactly enamoured with the idea of having to murder someone, but despite his best efforts he finds himself chosen as a new boot boy at Stallery Mansion, along with the superior and mysterious Christopher Smith. Conrad quickly realises he's not the only one with a hidden agenda, as Christopher reveals he's really there to find his friend Millie, who is lost somewhere inside the mansion.

Conrad and Christopher realise that Millie's disappearance is somehow related to the possibility pulling, and become allies in their search for answers and in their efforts to avoid Mr Amos, their boss. They discover that from within the mansion it's possible to make your way to a number of other worlds, each full of the ruins of other buildings. As Conrad gets closer to discovering just who is behind all this chaos, he reunites with his sister, Anthea; comes face-to-face with several ill-intentioned witches and a lively troop of actors; and discovers the truth behind the Stallery's noble family - and his own.

So what's so great about it then, huh? What I like about this book is essentially what I love about all of Jones' books - the way she crafts her stories, seemingly effortlessly, so that even apparently minor details are revealed to have significance in the book's conclusion, and so that every thread of the story is neatly tied into place before it is finished. She often gives us what I think of as a Grand Finale, with all the major and minor characters gathered in one place so that all their various secrets can finally come out, and the reader can finally make sense of all the hints they've been given. Jones is also Queen of Happy Endings - in her stories, everything always turns out OK, but without it feeling forced or false. Her books are simple enough that children can read them and enjoy them, but not so simple that adults can't love them too.

More about this series: The Chrestomanci series follows Christopher Chant, a nine-lifed enchanter, and his apprentice, Cat. The books in this series take place in various times in Christopher's life (and in a number of different worlds!) so that the chronological order of the books isn't necessarily the best order to read them in. The best place to start is with Charmed Life, in which the apparently talentless orphan Cat and his older sister Gwendolen are taken in by the people of Chrestomanci Castle, where (of course!) nothing is as it seems. Having said that, I read the books in neither chronological nor reading order and I thoroughly enjoyed them all anyway!

And if Chrestomanci doesn't sound like your thing, you might try the Castle series (the first of which is the much-loved Howl's Moving Castle) which puts a new spin on well-known situations from fairytales; or the Dalemark Quartet, which follows the journey of four different children as they overcome great odds to defeat the evil forces at work in the land of Dalemark.

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