Plot: Larwood House is a boarding school attended by a great number of witch-orphans. Thus when someone in class 2Y writes the teacher a note stating simply “SOMEONE IN THE CLASS IS A WITCH”, the allegation is taken very seriously. Soon magic is breaking out all over school and four students are very afraid of being found out. For the Inquisitor may be called at any moment and the punishment for witchcraft is death by burning, regardless of your age. Charles, Brian, Nan and Nirupam merely wish to save themselves but to do so they may have to change their entire world.
This book has often been compared to Harry Potter though it came out 15 years earlier and the tone is very different.Witchcraft is common in both worlds and the main characters attend a boarding school, but that’s where the similarities end. No one wants to go to Larwood House, which is anything but magical, and being a witch is a very dangerous thing. Nor is Larwood the sort of place that cultivates friendships. Friendship requires trust and most of these kids are too afraid to trust anyone.
This is a story about prejudice and the things an environment of fear, such as an inquisition, can do to even basically nice people (and basically nasty people as well). For all the fear and the nastiness, the book is still full of Wynne Jones’ characteristic wit. Flying brooms have personalities and insist on being ridden; Nan is incapable of stopping herself from describing things in the worst possible moments; and a boy unknowingly eats some running shoes. Among other things. Chrestomanci returns as he appears in Charmed Life: vague and mysterious (and impeccably dressed). But his contribution is minor; the story would have worked just as well without him. This is actually a good thing for as much as I love Christopher, the book is all the more satisfying because the children save their world and themselves.
This is not my favorite Diana Wynne Jones book, I wasn’t as attached to the characters and the magic that suffuses her other books was understandably subdued, but it remains a great read. If I have one complaint it is that the resolution hinges on a bit of British history that may be obscure to North American readers. But that’s what Wikipedia is for.
Challenges: Into the Old World Challenge (7)