2011 Books #5-7: Francis Sharp and Chrestomanci
I’m starting to catch up on books! Sort of. Still a woefully short reading list for the year so far – I blame March. Lousy March! Anyway, here are a handful of books I’ve read recently, all of which happen to star young male protagonists who are learning about magical stuff.
Francis Sharp in the Grip of the Uncanny – Chapter 1 by B. Sabo and A. Bratton is the first in a four-part graphic novel series that follows a young boy named Francis whose overactive imagination is his escape from the mundane reality of farm life. But his occult fantasies suddenly don’t seem as appealing when he finds himself lost in a world parallel to his own, in the care of goblins and followed by a dark presence.
In the interest of full disclosure (and bragging), I feel I should mention here that I’m friends with Brittney Sabo and have totally high-fived her. But bias aside, I really enjoyed this book. Francis is the sort of kid I’ve always loved reading about – bright, more interested in daydreams than reality, and full of heroic potential if he ever gets his priorities straight. As with a lot of first books in comic series, this book spends much of its time setting up the characters and world, and I’m excited to see where it takes Francis in future installments.
And did I mention the art? THE ART. I love it so. This art style perfectly suits the story, and the use of light and shadows gives me such artist envy.
You can read a preview of Francis Sharp (and buy a copy!) over here.
Writing lesson learned: Turning a character’s biggest strength into a weakness can make it more interesting. Francis’s imagination is his strongest character trait, but it’s also the thing that makes him neglect his chores and inadvertently damage the standing of his family’s farm. The tension between reality and imagination drives the central conflict in the story.
You might like this book if you enjoy… Quirky, imaginative middle grade or YA fantasy stories. Whimsical, slightly creepy comic art. Goblin librarians.
Would I recommend this to friends? Totally.
Onward, to Jones!
The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume One by Diana Wynn Jones actually contains two very different books, which I’ll review separately here.
I had no idea what the cover of this book looked like until I Googled it. That’s because the copy that was thrust into my hands by a friend had been enthusiastically read so many times that the cover had worn off. Only a peeling sliver of the spine and the gluey strip beneath remained. Now that is a sign of a well-loved book.
Charmed Lives is the first of the Chrestomanci books, and it sure takes its time building the story. Eric “Cat” Chant and his older sister Gwendolyn are orphans, at first taken in by a local witch and then summoned to live at the grand estate of the famous wizard Chrestomanci. Gwendolyn, being a magical prodigy and a stubborn show-off, aims to prove her skills at every chance she can get, even though she’s forbidden to do magic without Chrestomanci’s permission. This leaves totally normal and not-at-all-a-wizard Cat an unfortunate bystander to his sister’s magical antics when things go badly.
The first two-hundred pages of the book are world setup and Gwendolyn shenanigans, which makes for a leisurely read if you enjoy those things and likely an annoyingly slow beginning if you don’t. I enjoyed it but found myself wishing Jones would get to the meat of the story – which she finally did, for that last hundred pages.
And those last hundred pages are awesome. Doppelgangers! Parallel dimensions! Villains! Mortal peril! Tremendous amounts of really cool magic! At the end of this book I found myself really loving this world and these characters, and I didn’t mind the wait to get to the action so much.
Writing lesson learned: Pacing. Sorry to say, this will be an example I go back to in the future for how not to pace a novel. However, it’s also a lesson on keeping an audience reading with a world that’s the hook instead of plot. Those first slow two-thirds of the novel are pleasant to be immersed in, with little mysteries and new details about the magic scattered everywhere.
You might like this book if you enjoy… A storyteller’s voice. Dreamy, whimsical middle grade fantasy.
Would I recommend this to friends? Yes, if only to get them to the second book.
Because OMG THE SECOND BOOK.
I loved The Lives of Christopher Chant. Adored it. Wanted to start reading it again immediately after I finished it.
The Lives of Christopher Chant skips back in time 25 years to when Chrestomanci – then a sarcastic young boy named Christopher – was first learning about magic. Christopher starts off exploring different worlds through his dreams and quickly learns that they’re not just dreams – he’s touching something beyond his own dimension. As Christopher is recruited to help his uncle in the dream-world and to train with a powerful enchanter in his own world, shit gets very real very quickly and I start reading this book on my walk to work and yelling, “Christopher Chant, LOOK AT YOUR LIFE, LOOK AT YOUR CHOICES!” in front of strangers on the sidewalk and flailing over it in my office on breaks and LOOK I JUST HAVE A LOT OF LOVE FOR THIS BOOK OKAY.
LOVE AND YELLING.
This is the kind of quick plotting and in-depth world building I wanted to see in the first book. The parallel dimensions are introduced quickly, along with the fact that by the way, Christopher has nine lives, which is SO COOL and makes him a special kind of magical.
All Christopher has ever wanted was to be loved and accepted (and maybe become a cricket champion, too), and he’s got curiosity and intellect to spare, but he’s also defensive, sarcastic, and even mean at times. His attitude really isn’t helped by the fact that he’s stuck in a career track that fate picked for him and no one seems to view him as anything other than a naturally renewable resource.
Christopher is a lonely little jerk who’s getting yanked around by everyone, so of course he screws up all the time. And of course he winds up befriending a lonely goddess on a parallel world and trading one of her magical cats for a series of British schoolgirl novels. And of course he winds up at the center of an inter-dimensional crime drama. Because Christopher Chant is a boy caught between worlds, and this is just the sort of thing that happens to him.
Writing lesson learned: If you frame it right, even the weirdest world building can make total sense in context – and without coming off as a giant info-dump! The trick Jones uses is setting Christopher’s dream world up as a giant mystery first, so when it’s explained in bits and pieces, readers are left pining for more information each time.
You might like this book if you enjoy…The first book. Fascinating fantasy worlds. AWESOMENESS. YELLING AT BOOKS WHILE YOU WALK TO WORK.
Would I recommend this to friends? DID YOU NOT HEAR THE YELLING.