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I am trying to identify a children's fantasy book I borrowed at the library at around 10-12 years old (early 2000s). The story was in French but it might have been a translation. Below are the elements of the story I recall:

  • It is the story of boy, of around 10 years old I think, who has a teenage sister. Their parents died in a boat accident some time ago and were cousins (their family was against their marriage).

  • The story takes place in a world with less advanced technologies than in our world. I remember that there are no cars. There exists some kind of magic and the boy thinks his sister is a witch. But we learn that in fact he is the wizard and she stole his magical abilities.

  • There exists several parallel worlds and our world is one of them. Every characters have an alter-ego in each world.

  • The sister went into another world where she is treated like a queen. I think that she had to switch places with her alter-ego from another parallel world that replaces her in the world she left.

  • The boy meets the alter-ego of his sister from our world and discovers that his own alter-ego died at birth. At some point he comes into our world and is sick during a car ride.

  • The boy had a total of 9 lives, represented by matches in a box. Several of them are burnt:

    • one for his death at birth
    • one for his death in the boat accident that killed his parents
    • I think one that his sister took to steal his magical abilities
    • one when he lights it, not knowing it is special

I can't remember the name of the characters.

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This is Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones.

The wiki summary matches the details you have given, such as orphaned children and magic:

When the Chant children, Gwendolen and Eric "Cat," are orphaned after their parents die in a boating accident,Gwendolen petitions Chrestomanci to let them live at Chrestomanci Castle where she can further her magical training.

More on Gwendolen:

Gwendolen is extremely ambitious and has master plans to be Queen or to rule the world.

Gwendolen is replaced by a lookalike:

The next morning, Gwendolen has disappeared and a confused lookalike named Janet has taken her place.

The lives = matches detail matches as well, which our hero definitely didn't know were special:

Janet discovers a book of nine matches, five of which are already burnt. When Cat foolishly strikes a match and finds himself engulfed by flames, Janet's suspicions are confirmed: Cat, who has always believed himself utterly lacking in magical ability, is actually a nine-lived enchanter.

So yes... Cat has nine lives... and is magical.

And his sister has indeed been stealing his magic:

Gwendolen has been leeching Cat's magic and wasting his lives to fuel her own magic.

The breakdown of his lives and deaths are as follows:

He only has three lives remaining, having lost

  • the first life when he only just survived being born
  • the second when Gwendolen put his lives into a book of matches (to make them easier for her to use)
  • the third when he drowned in the boating accident that killed his parents
  • the fourth when Gwendolen used it to turn his fiddle into a cat (which he kept as a pet and named Fiddle)
  • the fifth when Gwendolen used it to take her into her new world where she reigned as queen
  • and the sixth when he burned a match from his 'life book' of matches in an attempt to prove that he didn't have nine lives and the matches weren't connected to him

Also worth noting:

Dutch and Finnish-language translations were published in 1980, followed by German. Danish, Italian, and French editions were published in the 1990s (when the four early novels were in print); later Polish and Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, Serbian.

  • Thanks for the quick answer, that's exactly the book I was looking for. – j_4321 Dec 21 '17 at 21:18
  • @j_4321 You did a lot of the work by giving such a detailed breakdown of all you remembered. I'd say all you were missing was the name Cat, otherwise you'd have had it. – raisinghellyer Dec 21 '17 at 21:29
  • @raisinghellyer, please tell me you've actually read this book and didn't just search online for it to answer this question. If you haven't read this book, do so. Diana Wynne Jones is the best author of children's fantasy of all time. – Wildcard Dec 22 '17 at 1:08
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    You should mention the author in the answer, too. :) – Wildcard Dec 22 '17 at 1:10
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    @Wildcard I have a friend who was very taken by Jones' work, and the OP's post was enough to jog my memory of what had been relayed to me some time ago. I'd never doubted this friend's tastes, but also never gotten around to reading these books myself. I see now that the time is nigh to amend my ways. – raisinghellyer Dec 27 '17 at 16:59

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