Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Title: Conrad’s Fate
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Greenwillow / Harper Collins
Publication Date: First published 2005
Paperback: 352 Pages
Conrad is young, good at heart, and yet is apparently suffering from the effects of such bad karma that there is nothing in his future but terrible things. Unless he can alter his circumstances – well, quite frankly, he is DOOMED.
Conrad is sent in disguise to Stallery Mansion, to infiltrate the magical fortress that has power over the whole town of Stallchester, and to discover the identity of the person who is affecting his Fate so badly. Then he has to kill that person. But can any plan really be that simple and straightforward? Of course it can?t! And things start to go very strangely for Conrad from the moment he meets the boy called Christopher.
Stand alone or series: Sixth book in the Chrestomanci series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Conrad’s Fate is the sixth (out of seven, only one left!) book in my beloved Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. As a DWJ, it is both a comfort read (the type I can always fall back to in times of trouble) and a surprising read. I was not expecting the twists and turns this story took.
Conrad is a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his family (mother, sister and uncle) in Stallery, a small town in the English Alps in Series Seven, one of the alternate worlds within the Chrestomanci books. Up on the hills of Stallery lies Stallery castle, the home of the Count and his family, and the source of continued changes that alter reality in small ways around Stallery. For you see, someone somewhere up in that castle is a magician powerful enough to pull possibilities. The word on the streets is that this someone is doing that for profit: adjusting something small here to gain a bit of money there, and so forth. But the changes are now getting bigger and bigger.
In the meantime, down on Stallery, Conrad’s sister Anthea takes off to uni, leaving Conrad under the care of his absent-minded mother and his overbearing uncle. Conrad is a bit unlucky, and he soon comes to learn that his is a dark fate: his uncle, who is a magician, tells him that in a past life he was supposed to have killed someone (for the greater good) but he didn’t and now he has to pay off that karma by offing the person responsible for the changes (for the greater good, of course). He is sent out to work undercover as valet-in-training for the Count until a time comes when he recognises the person he must kill.
Up there Conrad meets a young, fifteen-year-old Christopher Chant, the future Chrestomanci, who is on a mission himself and also working undercover.
There are so many wonderful things about Conrad’s Fate: there is a bit of comedy of errors here with Christopher pretending to be someone he is not, Conrad and him having to learn the intricacies of the Downstairs-Upstairs rules of British aristocracy/service while trying to keep track of their missions in a world where reality itself keeps changing in increasingly troubling ways. Later on, a group of actors show up to work in Service, then a bunch of unexpected magicians appear and the twists keep on coming just as the kids slide into one world after another. It is incredibly entertaining.
But no Diana Wynne Jones novel is just the one thing. From the get go, we are told that Conrad has a Bad Fate and this twelve-year-old kid is told by his own uncle that he needs to go and kill someone if he wants to fix his life, and Conrad absorbs and believes this. How messed up, heavy, unfortunate is that?
Narrated in first person by Conrad, this book turns out to have a wholly unreliable narrator: how can we trust Conrad to be describing reality as it is when he is operating under the assumption that everything he is told is the truth? From then on, Conrad’s Fate has to untangle all those expectations, all those untruths so that Conrad can get to carefully rebuilding his life.
And this being a DWJ novel, of course that happens with a beautiful, slow progression toward a hopeful, nice, warm, empowering ending. In the interim, Conrad and Christopher (and Millie!) become BFFs in a newly found family which is exactly the type of story I love so much.
Needless to say, another Diana Wynne Jones novel for the keeper shelf.
Rating: 8 – Excellent