|Author||Diana Wynne Jones|
|UK Release Date||1977|
|US Release Date|
|Followed by||The Lives of Christopher Chant|
Cat and Gwendolen Chant are taken to live with Chrestomanci after the death of their parents. But Gwendolen's magical talents go unacknowledged, she decides to get revenge.
While on a summer outing with their parents, Cat and Gwendolen Chant are orphaned when the ferry their family is riding crashes. The two siblings are among the few survivors; Cat believes this is because Gwendolen is a witch, so she can't drown, and Cat himself clung to Gwendolen. The town sets up a trust fund for them, and they are taken in by Mrs. Sharp, a kindly older woman who lived downstairs from them. Mrs. Sharp is an Certified Witch, and she senses Gwendolen's innate talent. They go through the siblings' parents' belongings and find three letters from Chrestomanci, which Mrs. Sharp barters to Mr. Nostrum, the necromancer next door, for magic lessons for Gwendolen.
Gwendolen excels in her studies and becomes the darling of the neighborhood, who dote on her and give her presents. Cat takes violin lessons to balance Gwendolen's magic lessons, but his playing is horrible and Gwendolen turns his violin into a cat the neighborhood adopts and calls Fiddle. A Fortune-Teller reads Gwendolen her fortune and predicts she'll rule the world someday if she goes about it the right way. Miss Larkins, the neighborhood favorite before Gwendolen, tries to predict Cat's fortune out of jealousy. She goes into a trance, and a man's voice tells Cat how glad he is to have found him, but that he must be more careful: four are gone already, and he's in danger from at least two directions. That evening, Gwendolen writes to Chrestomanci.
Soon after, Chrestomanci himself comes in person and expresses a wish to have Gwendolen and Cat come live with him in his castle. Gwendolen is exultant, believing she's off to rule the world; Cat, who loves his home in Wolvercote, is morose. They set off a week later by train in grand style and travel to the far countryside, where they're greeted by a man named Michael Saunders, who introduces himself as their tutor. Michael drives them from the platform to Chrestomanci Castle, where he brings them through a side door and hands them off to the housekeeper, Miss Bessemer. That evening they dine with the Family and meet Chrestomanci's wife, Millie, and their children, Roger and Julia.
Next morning, Cat and Gwendolen begin lessons with Roger and Julia. Gwendolen and Julia get into a small magic duel over breakfast, after which lessons commence. Cat, who is left-handed, does as usual and pretends to be right-handed when Michael isn't looking, and Gwendolen shows she knows next to nothing about anything that isn't magic. Michael loses his temper when he discovers Cat writing with his right hand, and dismisses them both from the schoolroom before lunch so Roger and Julia can have their magic lesson: Chrestomanci, he says, has forbidden them both from learning magic for the time being.
Gwendolen, feeling she's not begin given the attention she deserves, grows steadily more and more furious and determines to make Chrestomanci notice her. On Wednesday, when they get their pocket money and a free afternoon to go down to the village, Gwendolen visits a seedy magic provisions supplier named Mr. Baslam to buy magic ingredients and some illegal dragon's blood. During dinner, she summons ghouls to loom at the windows, but Chrestomanci merely asks the butler to close the curtains.
Gwendolen declares magical war on Chrestomanci and casts one problematic spell after another as the days pass, but still no one acknowledges even that. She receives a letter from Mr. Nostrum, only to find that Chrestomanci already opened and read it, to her further fury. Her feud with Julia turns into a second war when she turns Julia's skirt to snakes during supper. On Sunday, when the go to church, Gwendolen bespells the figures and saints in the stained glass windows to run from pane to pane, causing mischief and raising a disturbance among the congregation. Chrestomanci still pays her no mind, but Millie is furious.
That Wednesday, Gwendolen's dragon's blood arrives in time for Chrestomanci's dinner party. The children eat dinner separately and are told to stay in their rooms. Gwendolen obliges and returns to her room, where she uses her dragon's blood to grow insects to monstrous sizes, summon skeletons, and conjure the same ghouls from before, and send them all to interrupt the party. Chrestomanci and Michael force their way into her room before she finishes; Chrestomanci boxes Cat's ears for not interfering, and Michael spanks Gwendolen and strips her of her magic.
Next morning, Cat wakes up and goes to Gwendolen's room, only to find that Gwendolen has disappeared and left an exact look-alike in her place. This strange girl, Janet, comes from a parallel world that has no magic and is much more modern. Terrified of what Chrestomanci will do or say when he discovers what Gwendolen has done, Cat and Janet agree to keep the switch a secret. Janet relies on Cat as struggles to pretend to be Gwendolen, and they both must deal with the messes Gwendolen has left behind: a spell turning the maid Euphemia into a toad, twenty pounds owed to Mr. Baslam for illegal dragon's blood, an outstanding feud with Julia, and a secret plan of the Nostrums in which Gwendolen and Cat are both involved.
Janet and Cat resolve to run away to Janet's world, where Janet promises Cat he can live with her and her parents as her brother. As they make their plans, Janet discovers a matchbook tucked among Cat and Gwendolen's parents' belongings and deduces the nine matches held inside are Cat's nine lives. Cat, in disbelief, attempts to prove her wrong by striking one of the matches. Before Janet can stop him, Cat erupts into flames, and Janet does the only thing she can think to do: call for Chrestomanci. He arrives immediately and douses the fire, then explains to Cat that he did, in fact, have nine lives, but now he only has three. Cat realizes it was Chrestomanci's voice he heard Miss Larkins speaking with back in Wolvercote.
The next day, Sunday--two weeks after Gwendolen and Cat arrived at the Castle--Cat and Janet stay home while the rest of the Castle Family and staff go to church. They take the opportunity to filch a bit of dragon's blood from Michael Saunders's workshop, then sneak into Chrestomanci's garden, which serves as a gateway to other worlds. At the center there is an arch, and when they sprinkle a bit of dragon's blood before it, its middle become window-like, displaying an image of Gwendolen as queen in another world. She notices them, but before Cat and Janet can escape to Janet's world, the Nostrums appear in the garden using Cat's signature from one of his school essays to teleport to his exact location. They are followed by more witches and warlocks, many of whom Cat recognizes from Wolvercote, and once they're all arrived, the Nostrums summon Chrestomanci.
Chrestomanci appears instantly, and immediately the Nostrums seize upon him and bind him with silver, his weakness, preventing him from using magic. They immobilize Cat and tie him to the stone before the arch, revealing that their plan with Gwendolen is to kill an innocent child--Cat--before the arch, breaking Chrestomanci's magic and opening the way to other worlds. But before they can kill Cat, Janet vanishes, and Gwendolen appears in her place. Gwendolen reveals to the Nostrums that Cat has nine lives and recounts what she did with some of them, explaining that they'll have to kill him several times; this infuriates the Nostrums, because it means Cat is a powerful enchanter in his own right, and to kill him they'll first need to discover his weakness. Before Gwendolen offers to leave so they can use her double, Chrestomanci tells them the cat, Fiddle, which Gwendolen had turned from a violin using one of Cat's lives, is in the garden. All the witches and warlocks set off through the maze-like garden to search for the cat, leaving Chrestomanci and Cat alone at the center.
Cat is shocked and heartbroken by his sister's betrayal and at how very little she cares for him. Chrestomanci galvanizes him to action, telling Cat how to use his magic to break them both free of their restraints. Cat manages to free Chrestomanci just as they're discovered, and Chrestomanci holds the returning witches and warlocks off and begins to summon the Family and Castle staff. Cat realizes Gwendolen is using his magic against them, preventing Chrestomanci from summoning Millie. He takes his magic back and joins in the battle as Millie arrives.
The Family round up the members of the conspiracy, but Gwendolen escapes and seals herself off from the rest of the world, dragging Janet back into the garden in her place. The Family holds an impromptu picnic in the garden. Chrestomanci explains that they brought Cat there to train him as the next Chrestomanci, but they didn't know if Cat knew of his magic or not, or whether he was just as amoral as his sister, which was why they'd kept him out of the loop. He offers to find a way to send Janet back to her world, but Janet says the double who replaced her was happier there than in her own world, and Chrestomanci admits that the rest are just as better off in their new worlds. He and Millie offer to adopt Janet and let her remain at Chrestomanci Castle as their legal ward.
- Cat Chant - A young boy from Wolvercote orphaned in an accident. While his sister is a talented witch, Cat has never been able to work a spell in his life.
- Gwendolen Chant - Cat's older sister, a witch. Gwendolen is self-centered and haughty, and believes she's destined to rule the world.
- Ellen Sharp - Cat and Gwendolen's downstairs neighbor, an Accredited Witch who takes them in after their parents die. She's a small-minded, greedy woman, but kind-hearted and cares for Cat dearly.
- Henry Nostrum - A hedge necromancer living next-door to Mrs. Sharp. He takes Gwendolen as his pupil. He and his brother William head a conspiracy to destroy Chrestomanci and open the way to other worlds.
- William Nostrum - Henry Nostrum's brother and a wealthy, successful necromancer in his own right. He and his brother head a conspiracy to destroy Chrestomanci and open the way to other worlds.
- Fiddle - Cat's old violin, which Gwendolen turned into a cat using one of Cat's lives.
- Chrestomanci - A government employee whose job is to police the use of magic and prevent it from being misused against those without magic. Chrestomanci is only his title.
- Michael Saunders - A magician in Chrestomanci's employ and tutor to the Chant children. His sleeves and trouser legs always seem a few inches too short.
- Maude Bessemer - Housekeeper at Chrestomanci Castle and a powerful sorceress in her own right. She is a kind-hearted, imposing woman who always wears purple.
- Millie Chant - Chrestomanci's plain-looking, good-natured wife, and a powerful enchantress.
- Roger Chant - Chrestomanci's son; he has powerful magic.
- Julia Chant - Chrestomanci's daughter; she has powerful magic, and is possibly a sorceress.
- Euphemia - One of the maids at Chrestomanci Castle.
- Mary - One of the maids at Chrestomanci Castle.
- Mr Baslam - A seedy man who makes a living procuring and providing exotic supplies to the less-reputable magic-users living in the shadow of Chrestomanci Castle.
- Janet Chant - One of Gwendolen's doubles, from world Twelve-B. She's a plucky, tomboyish girl who is as kind as Gwendolen is selfish. Janet cannot use magic.
- Will Suggins - Euphemia's beau who works at the bakery in town and is a warlock. When Cat accidentally turns Euphemia into a frog, Will challenges him to a duel with magic.