Book 1 of the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, by Diana Wynne Jones (1977). When people say, “If you like Harry Potter, then you should read Diana Wynne Jones,” these are the books you should probably start with.
I don’t remember Diana Wynne Jones books being around when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure I would have found them in the library, if they had been.
The kids’ books that I read as a kid treated Adulthood as a separate sort of country, a faraway place that everyone journeys to, after a lifetime of being miserable and/or having adventure in the land of Childhood. See Narnia. And then there was the kind of book that treated Fantasy as a separate sort of country, and you could never go there. See Tolkein.
I always felt worse after finishing the second kind of book.
One of the good things about DWJ is that she makes you feel as though there never were such countries, or rather, there always were such countries, and you’ve always lived there and didn’t know it. The adults are petty and childish, even the nice ones, and you can almost imagine what they were like when they were children, rotten. The magic doesn’t so much “have its price” as fit into the natural scheme of things so thoroughly that characters treat the rules of it like they treat any kind of common knowledge. –Magic isn’t all that. It isn’t a country that you go to and come back from, it’s a variation on what exists, right in front of you.
The main character in Charmed Life is Cat, who has no magic and is living in the shadow of his horrible older sister. She’s the brilliant one, vain and mean, and Cat can’t do a thing without her. Their parents drown in a ferry accident, and the two children are cared for by a low-life hedge witch who lived in the apartment below them. She ends up selling the few precious things the kids have to pay for magic lessons for the older sister, who is taught be a mean-spirited Necromancer.
It’s the kind of thing you’d almost expect from Frances Hodgson Burnett, not a fantasy writer. All kinds of things happen, and Cat and his sister end up in Chrestomanci Castle, the home of the Ministry-employed enchanter employed to manage the magic in that version of England, and Cat slowly acquires a life of his own, not coincidentally pulling away from his sister at the same time.
I picked this up and re-read it after finishing Fire and Hemlock. I couldn’t remember which book was which, and I was happy to find this was the Cat book, the book about the poor dumb kid who’s lost everything, has been told he’s a talentless fool his whole life, and acts like a jerk because of it. But manages to pull himself together. I can’t help thinking that if I were his older sister, I would have been proud of him, not treated him like dirt. I’m a sap that way.