“The spells of both houses are so good that ignorant people think that even the envelopes can work magic. This, of course, is nonsense. For, as Paolo and Tonino Montana were told over and over again, a spell is the right words delivered in the right way.”
– The Magicians of Caprona, Diana Wynne Jones
One of my favourite things about Diana Wynne Jones’ series is that they’re all Style 3 or 4, going by Jo Walton’s categorisation of series styles – the kind that can be read independently (Styles 3 & 4), but may form a sort of arc or reveal a bigger story when read together (Style 3). Of course, I didn’t know this the first time I read The Magicians of Caprona, because it was one of the first books by DWJ I’d read, and I read it right after Charmed Life. So my reaction was pretty much, “where’s Chrestomanci?” and “is this even in the same world?”
Because while Charmed Life was set in England, and mostly in Chrestomanci’s castle, The Magicians of Caprona is set in an alternate Italy, where magic is done by singing, and the two major spellmaking houses are feuding with each other. The story starts out with an explanation for the feud that lasted longer than the oldest family members of Casa Montana and Casa Petrocchi can remember, and proceeds to focus on Tonino, the youngest of the Montanas.
Tonino is proud to be a part of Casa Montana, and thanks to the stories he’s heard from his Cousin Lucia, he hates the Petrocchis. He’s also “slow”, as he – and sometimes family members – would say. He can’t seem to learn spells. When he does, it’s with extreme difficulty. To make matters worse, his brother Paolo is the opposite – quick at school and at spells. Dismayed with his lack in ability when it comes to magic, he escapes into books. And not just any sort – Tonino loves fantasy, books where “people had wild adventures with no magic to help or hinder them.” I remember loving this part the first time I read it, because it made me wonder about how different things are in a world where magic is the norm. (What would people like Heinlein or Tolkien write, in world 12A?) Tonino also cheers himself up by remembering that he’s still a Montana; that he’s liked by Benvenuto, the Casa’s boss cat; and that at least he’s not as bad as Angelica Petrocchi, who turned her father green.
When a shadow starts to hang over Caprona – and over Casa Montana – Tonino has to set aside his personal worries. He learns that the virtue of Casa Montana is fading, and there may be an evil enchanter taking advantage of that in order to invade Caprona. Because both families have been contracted to help rebuild a bridge, and requested by the Duke to find the true words to the Angel of Caprona, the song/spell that protects the city. Because of this, three sets of the younger Montanas and Petrocchis end up getting to know each other – one in a Romeo & Juliet-like romance, and the other two in that slow hate-at-first-sight-turns-to-friendship thing that I like, especially when DWJ writes it. Of course, Tonino is one of the three pairs of children, finding himself trapped with Angelica Petrocchi (yes, the one that turned her father green), and having to work together to get free, and to save Caprona. Which brings me to one of my favourite things about this book, and DWJ’s writing: the evil enchanter may think they’ve gotten the weakest members of the two spell houses, but they’ve really gotten the strongest.
One thing that Diana Wynne Jones does that I like, that I think I’ve mentioned I like, is when she has characters like Tonino and Cat Chant that see themselves as one thing, and other people don’t see them like that at all (Tonino thinks he’s slow and not of use to the Montanas, but the Montanas adore him and value his book-knowledge and cat-speaking abilities) and throughout the book, they slowly learn to appreciate themselves/their abilities more. I also love the message that just because something is always done a certain way it doesn’t mean it’s the right/only way, which I think is another very DWJ-like message. In The Magicians of Caprona, both Tonino and Angelica think that they are failures of a sort – Tonino has great difficulty in learning spells, and Angelica learns them easily but always bungles them up. When Chrestomanci meets them – he finally makes an appearance as the cousin of Tonino’s mother, there to help with finding the evil enchanter – he sees that really, it’s not that Tonino and Angelica can’t do magic, it’s that they go about it differently, and have different sorts of abilities. This, and how a less loving or understanding family/school might have treated Tonino and Angelica, reminds me of children with learning disabilities and how it’s just that they just do and learn things differently from the majority. I love that Chrestomanci’s response to seeing their magic is to learn more about it, and see through their potential, rather than forcing them to go about things the “normal” way.
And then there’s the fact that of course, this is also a story about big families and feuds and how we usually don’t know all the sides to a story, and while the families in here are awesome even with their obvious flaws, there’s still the unreliable adult in the Duke, who’s also the vague character or the fool, and Rinaldo, with his vain entitlement, each betraying the younger generations’ image of what a leader ought to be like. There’s just so much in this book, and it’s such a slim volume, and a very fun, magical, charming one at that, with talking cats that help with magic and spells that are sung (and the true words to the Angel of Caprona!), the wonderful creepiness of the Punch & Judy scene, and I haven’t even touched on Paolo’s character arc or Lucia’s inventiveness or Rosa and Marco’s romance, or Chrestomanci himself! No wonder I found it hard to find one thing I wanted to focus on more than others when I started on this post, and now I’m just all over the place and wondering when I’m going to get to Witch Week.
* the cover image used is the version I used to have. A friend borrowed and lost that copy, and while I’ve replaced it – twice – I haven’t been able to get it with the same cover, which is unfortunate.