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THE WORLDS OF CHRESTOMANCI: Charmed Life, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christoper Chant, Mixed Magics. By Diana Wynne Jones. Collins Children's Books. pound;10.99 hardback, pound;4.99 paperback each.

Welcome back, Chrestomanci. It is high time a new readership was introduced to these splendid books, which are set in a universe in which worlds have subdivided into parallel series of nine, dependent upon the outcome of certain historical events such as the Gunpowder Plot.

In the version of Earth that Chrestomanci inhabits, magic is commonplace, practised by the lowliest, jobbing warlocks and bogstandard witches, all the way up to the Chrestomanci himself, arch-enchanter and Senior Civil Servant, combining the presence and omniscience of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.

In Charmed Life, orphans Gwendolen and Cat Chant are taken to live at Chrestomanci Castle. Gwendolen is an accomplished witch who sets out to rule the world - any world - there are eight others to choose from. But it is Cat, the despised little brother, who turns out to be a nine-lifed enchanter. The lives are spellound in a book of matches, and three of them are already burned.

The Magicians of Caprona takes us to an alternative Italy where a city state is protected by rival spell-houses, locked into a Montague-Capulet feud that leaves the city vulnerable to the depredations of the White Devil. Only slow Tonino Montana and quick but inaccurate Angelina Petrucchi can save the day, aided by the last-minute intervention of Chrestomanci, the comforting guarantor that everything will be all right in the end - almost.

The magic is a traditional eye-of-newt, toe-of-bat affair, souped up by dragon's blood, a prohibited substance obtainable only on the black market, but paradoxically, magic is not the point of these stories. Magic is the McGuffin, the indefinable factor, and a metaphor - the unsuspected talent, the responsibility that cannot be shirked, the unavoidable destiny.

The characters are real people - the bullied, the manipulated, the undervalued, the overlooked. Even Chrestomanci was once a humble, cricket-mad schoolboy. The magic is where it ought to be; in the writing.

JAN MARK

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