Diana Wynne Jones, Conrad's Fate (Greenwillow Books, 2005)
Conrad has Bad Karma. This is an article of faith, particularly for Uncle Alfred and his circle of magicians. Conrad, at age 12, has simply become resigned to the fact, and spends more time figuring out how to get Uncle Alfred to pay for his continuing education: it is almost time for him to leave school, unless he can continue on in Upper School. Most of his friends are going to Stall High, and they teach magic there. Conrad can hardly wait to try his hand at it.
Uncle Alfred, however, has his own plans for Conrad's future, and Conrad's mother, who spends all her time writing feminist books, can't be bothered. Thanks to Uncle Alfred, Conrad is due to be interviewed for a position as a domestic at Stallery Mansion, the seat of the Counts of Stallery, high in the English Alps above Stallchester, where Conrad lives. (Stallchester is subject to abrupt changes, as well as terrible television reception. Uncle Alfred says that the TV problems are from the magical defenses at Stallery. The abrupt changes -- one morning the post boxes all change from red to blue -- are due to the Counts pulling the possibilities to increase the profits of their world-wide enterprises -- a unique way of playing the futures market.)
It seems that this is the chance that Conrad -- or at least, Uncle Alfred -- has been waiting for to fix his karma: someone who lives at Stallery is responsible, and Conrad must find him -- or her -- and eliminate them, or he will die a horrible death within a year.
So Conrad dutifully boards the tram for Stallery, along with what seems to be everyone between the ages of 12 and 14 in the town, for the interview. Conrad, however, has been armed by Uncle Alfred with spells that will insure that he is taken on. As they arrive at the gates, they are joined by a tall, self-assured, if somewhat abstracted, young man named Christopher -- mm -- Smith who has been traveling with a Gypsy caravan. Conrad and Christopher are first rivals for a position, then roommates, and finally, fast friends.
And yes, indeed, there is something very strange about Stallery -- in fact, there are many strange things about Stallery, some of which may pull Conrad's world into one of the other eleven universes, and unraveling these puzzles is the core of the story.
Conrad's Fate is the fifth in Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series, and my first exposure to Jones. This is juvenile fiction of a very high order. Those familiar with the series will recognize that Christopher Smith is actually Christopher Chance, one of the nine-lived wizards of the Chrestomanci (although he seems to have lost a few somewhere along the line). The plot wrinkles are many; Conrad is a delightful protagonist, and the other characters, while spanning the range from English eccentrics to stereotypical servants (except for the actors hired to play servants for a major party), are aptly drawn; dialogue is sharp and often unexpected; the mysteries are puzzling; and the climax is somewhere between The Forsyte Saga and Monty Python, with all the dizzying revelations of French farce.
I was captivated by this book, being, I guess, as much child as anything else. It's intriguing, hysterically funny, and Conrad is a gem. It's definitely on my re-read list, and I am eager for more of Jones' work. Highly recommended.
[Robert M. Tilendis]