Diana Wynne-Jones returns to the world(s) of Chrestromanci in the fifth full-length book in her most popular series. Though fans of the dapper magician might be disappointed that he is a supporting character, the title "Conrad's Fate" indicates who is the star of this twisty, hilarious fantasy.
Conrad Tesdinic has always been told by his creepy Uncle Alfred that he has bad karma -- apparently he failed to kill someone in a previous life, and will die in a year unless he kills them now. So Conrad finds himself being shipped off to the castle of Stallery, as a servant, to find the person he has to kill. Joining him is Christopher, a smart boy who seems able to work magic, yet doesn't know what a chili pepper is.
Christopher eventually tells Conrad that he is a nine-lived magician, and has run away from his own world to find his friend Millie, who has also run away. She's somewhere in the castle, but he can't find her. Peculiar behavior from the count and his family, a troupe of actors, and strange shifts in reality are plaguing Stallery, and Conrad soon finds that he may have more than bad karma to worry about.
Diana Wynne-Jones' most popular fantasy series is the Chrestomanci one, which predated the Harry Potter series with its organizational magic and twinkly British humor. It's complex, funny and more than a little strange, and fans of "The Lives of Christopher Chant" will enjoy seeing old favorites -- like Millie and Gabriel -- returning to Jones' writing.
Fans of Chrestomanci/Christopher Chant may be slightly disappointed by his secondary role. But then again, the book IS called "Conrad's Fate," so it's hardly surprising that the narrator is Conrad. Conrad himself is a likable kid, with bad luck and a pleasant personality, but who is also plagued by spells and lies from the people around him. And Christopher is showing signs of the dapper, intelligent magician he later becomes.
The last parts of the book become somewhat confusing, with several intertangled plotlines, only to have Jones suddenly snap them taut. It's a credit to her that she is able to have a shifting castle, runaway magicians, a knitting witch, a gold-digger, faux nobility and an assassination plot all come to a head simultaneously. And her dialogue ("You pear-shaped freak!") shows that her sense of humor has not dulled with time.
At the end of "Conrad's Fate," it's hard not to wonder what is going to happen next in the series. Fortunately, in the meantime, this book is a delightful fantasy mystery.