Today I would like to share some reflective thoughts on my recent reread of Conrad’s Fate by Diana Wynne Jones.
For a period of time when I was a child I lived in a place where I had limited access to books written in English. Luckily I had a homely local library that also happened to be in the same building as my mum’s office. I went there a lot over the school holidays and picked up all kinds of books. There weren’t many new releases on offer, but the older books the library had opened up a new world of stories to me. It was there that I found some well-loved copies of titles from Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series.
The first book by Diana Wynne Jones that I read was Conrad’s Fate, which is about a boy who has been told by his uncle that he has a bad fate and will die within the year. However, his uncle claims, if he tracks down the person he should have killed in a past life it will wipe out his bad karma. Thereby Conrad’s uncle manipulates him into going to work as a trainee page at Stallery Mansion in order to find this person. In the process of trying to cure his ‘bad karma’ Conrad becomes wound up in multiple twisted plots involving enchanters who can move between worlds and machines that can shift reality, all while trying not to be sacked from a job he did not want in the first place.
The best thing about rereading this book after many years is being able to discover new things in it. For example, I don’t think it had ever really clicked with me before just how abusive and neglectful many of the adults are in this story. There are some aspects of my reading experience that didn’t change, however. I always find Christopher Chant as mysterious and funny as Conrad does, and I always get wrapped up in the unravelling of the mysteries in Stallery Mansion. Conrad’s journey is one that I always find highly readable. He starts as a neglected boy who unsuccessfully tries to fight for an education by attempting to manipulate his uncle into allowing him to go to High School , who is in turn is manipulated by his uncle into becoming a spy at the mansion. But in the end he is respected for having a power of his own, finds friendship and is given a chance to claim the education he needs.
My focus during my first reading was on Conrad and Christopher’s friendship and adventures through the shifting possibilities that spring up from the mansion. On this read through I took in more of the context of the lives of these two boys, and Millie too. They’re out on these adventures because the adults around them have either manipulated them into it or neglected their happiness. The children feel like they have to save themselves from the burdens and abuse adults have placed on their shoulders. There are a lot of big games being played by the adults and Conrad is very unfairly used as a pawn. There’s real darkness lurking beneath the adventures present in this novel. I think the darkness has always been part of this book’s charm for me but I’ve only recently sat down and consciously reflected on the exact nature of the darkness and paid close attention to how it’s formed in the narrative.
Another difference between my first reading and this one is my knowledge of the series as a whole. When I first read Conrad’s Fate I hadn’t read a single other book by Diana Wynne Jones in my life. I read about Christopher’s strange lack of common knowledge about the world he inhabited and his awkward allergy to silver with the same curiosity as Conrad does instead of knowing about Christopher’s past and future in the way readers of previous instalments in the series already did. From my experience this book is certainly enjoyable as a standalone tale so I don’t think it’s necessary to read the other instalments beforehand, but when you do read them it adds an extra layer of interest to the story as it bridges the gap in Christopher’s story between The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life.
Rereading a childhood favourite has certainly been a rewarding experience for me and I do hope to re-read more books from the Chrestomanci series soon.