The people up at Stallery Manor keep "pulling the probabilities" -- manipulating chance to change the world into one that's more favorable to them. The problem is, this causes all kinds of spillover changes, most of which go unnoticed by people elsewhere in the world (things have always been that way, right?), but which are readily apparent to people living in the town of Stallchester. Conrad, a boy of twelve, gets sent up there to become a servant and sniff around for the cause of these problems . . . and also to kill somebody. You see, Conrad has an evil fate: some kind of bad karma hanging around from a past life, when he failed to take out somebody he was supposed to. If he doesn't make good on that now, he'll die before the year is out.
And then things get more complicated when an older boy named Christopher shows up, from another world, looking for his missing friend Millie.
Yes, this is another Chrestomanci book (and I think the only other story that shows us Christopher in his pre-Chrestomanci days). I bore it a bit of a grudge the first time I read it because I wanted MOAR CHRISTOPHER DANGIT, and that isn't this book; I liked it better now that I was reading the book it actually was. Really, what it is could be described as "the Chrestomanci series meets Gosford Park / Downton Abbey;" a lot of the story revolves around the servants-eye view of a grand household, first as vast amounts of effort are spent on keeping three people in style, then as a bunch of guests show up.
The rest of the details go behind the cut.
Okay, I still want MOAR CHRISTOPHER DANGIT . . . in ways that, on reflection, would have made it not so much a Diana Wynne Jones novel. You see, there are these tantalizing hints of romance and associated drama, to the point where I think there's a great YA story that could be written out of this material, instead of the children's story we get here. (Certainly that story might make Gabriel come off better; he seems a little bit clueless here, what with ignoring Millie until after she's vanished.) In particular, the throwaway comment about Christopher breaking into Gabriel's safe to steal the gold ring with his life in it is a scene I really want to read. More than I want to read about Conrad, honestly, which is why this book falls a bit flat for me.
It's also kind of structural. Conrad goes up to Stallery with a mission, but it sort of gets put on hold while he helps Christopher run around looking for Millie. Then we find out it was bogus anyway, which leaves Conrad without momentum, as the consequences of that deception get deferred until the very end, after Gabriel has shown up to ex machina explicate what's been going on at Stallery. I think it might have been easier to tie everything together if Christopher had been at the center, instead of Conrad.
Also, I have to ask a question about the end, and the assertion that Conrad can't stay in Series Twelve, because people can't leave their world forever. Uh, don't we have three examples saying that isn't true? Gwendolen/Janet, Millie, and Tacroy. Okay, so Gwendolen hopped along her own Series; maybe that's different. But the other two? Even if you go back to my post about Charmed Life and assume that Gwendolen and Millie managed to move permanently because a life got destroyed (which I still don't buy in Millie's case), none of that explains Tacroy. It's a weird inconsistency that bugs me.
I don't think this book is terrible, but I don't think it works entirely well for fans of other Chrestomanci books, because it doesn't do enough of the Chrestomanci stuff to satisfy, but has too much Chrestomanci (compared with Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona) to make the focus on Conrad quite work. It might work better for readers who encounter it first.
Next up, probably Witch Week.