Diana Wynne Jones, Deep Secret (Gollancz, 1997; St. Martin's Press, 1999; Starscape, 2002)
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
If your feet are speedy and light
You can get there by candlelight.
quoted in Deep Secret
Deep Secret is a Starscape (an imprint of Tor) reprint of a novel published by Gollancz in the late '90s. It, like so many things we review here, arrived for review unbidden but certainly not unwelcome. As I was spending August '03 reading fiction, I added it to my pile of books. (And I do mean pile.) After rereading the Evenmere novels, it was on a short list of really cool possible reads, the other ones being Larry Niven's Scatterbrain collection; Death: At Death's Door, a graphic novel by Jill Thompson set in Gaiman's Sandman multiverse; and George Alec Effinger's Budayeen Nights collection. It was the artwork that made this book stand out: a centaur jumping over what's obviously a group of fans checking in at a sci-fi convention! Cool!
(Artwork will grab my attention. It won't make me read a novel, but will help me notice it. Bad artwork obviously will have the opposite effect.)
The Multiverse, as is revealed to us on the first page of this novel, is shaped like an Infinity symbol, with the worlds that are magical on the Ayewards side and the worlds that are scientific on the Naywards side. The Empire of Koryfos, which will soon be in chaos, is situated right at the point where the eight twists. Individuals with extraordinary magic abilities, known as Magids, oversee the events on all of these worlds, occasionally nudging them along a path that is considered more viable to all of the worlds.
(Quick way to determine if a world is Ayewards or Naywards: centaurs only exist where magic is truly dominant. Earth being neither strongly Ayewards or Naywards has no centaurs. More's the pity!)
(Another side note: centaurs work better in fiction than they do in film. One of the principle characters on The Young Hercules series is a centaur. I cringe every time I watch him move, as the horse part of him doesn't match the human part. Even satyrs work much better than centaurs do!)
Rupert Venables, a software engineer as even Magids must earn a living and Earth's junior Magid, finds himself promoted suddenly when the senior Magid, Stan, dies. (Death here is not exactly an end point, as Stan will return as a telekinetic ghost to aid and/or annoy Rupert. And play Rupert's stereo very loudly.) His first task is to find a new junior Magid, and Stan, before he passes on, and I do mean on, gives him a list of five prime candidates none of whom sees to be remotely findable. If you have read Larry Niven's Ringworld, you might remember that puppeteers were breeding humans for luck, resulting in Teela Brown, supposedly the single luckiest human being ever. Lois Wu makes the pithy remark that, if she's so lucky, why's she stranded on Ringworld? (We discover that being lucky at that level means that one can't be hurt. Ringworld allows Teela to be hurt, and to become a true adult.) I suspect that, given being a Magid seems to be a lot of thankless, mostly boring work, that a candidate with strong magical powers would also have the luck to avoid being chosen to be one!
Rupert is beginning to have an idea where one or two of the junior Magid candidates might be, when the much despised Koryfonic Emperor is assassinated. To make matters even worse, he has hidden all of his heirs. (Or they have made themselves disappear, as he executes one early on for stating he's his son. Indeed he carries out the execution personally.) Now Rupert has two equally impossible tasks to do: 1) find a suitable candidate to replace him as junior Magid now that he has taken Stan's place, and 2) keep the Koryfonic Empire from falling apart completely while he searches for the heir to the Empire.
Given that no one knows who the heirs are, and that the Emperor was assassinated using magical means, these are not easy tasks. This is where it gets complicated. In a charming, fast-paced manner. Rupert locates, with a great deal of difficulty, Maree Mallory, and decides that she will not do as the next junior Magid. (I won't say why. That's a piece of the puzzle I'll leave to you to discover.) But Maree, along with her cousin, Nick, end up exactly where Rupert is summoning the other four candidates to be: Phantasmacon, a sci-fi convention at the Hotel Babylon in Wantchester, England. Without spoiling anything for you, I can say that the two seemingly-not-connected missions are so deeply linked that solving one will indeed solve the other. Did I mention that Rupert will find true love? Are you surprised he does? You shouldn't be!
The very best parts of the novel are those set at the Phantasmacon. David Langford, in his review of Deep Secret in The New York Review of SF (June 1998) said, 'Phantasmacon feels like a real convention, and the few in-jokes are unobtrusive. Only those in the know will detect, for example, the lovingly observed depiction of a hemidemisemiconscious Neil ('I'm not a morning person') Gaiman confronting or failing to confront breakfast at a Milford UK conference. The con ambience provides a logical enough background for derring-do in which wounded centaurs are smuggled to safety while fans cry, 'What a marvellous costume!', sigils of ultimate foulness appear scrawled on hotel bedroom doors, the kitchens get ransacked for magical ingredients, and the placing of a geas on a black mage in the hotel lobby becomes, inadvertently, a warmly applauded public performance.'
I'm using his description as I've only been to a few cons in my time, so I wanted the viewpoint of an longtime member of the sci-fi community like him. It confirms what I suspect when reading Deep Secret that this book is, at least in part, if not wholly, not aimed at the '12 and up' crowd that Starscape says it's for, but for the extended, loosely-connected world of fandom. In other words, anyone who reads much sf and/or fantasy should definitely read Deep Secret. Really. Truly. And anyone who hasn't attended a con will want to after reading Jones's true-to-life descriptions. They are truly that weird!
Deep Secret works in all aspects. The characters are real, well-drawn and, for the most part, quite likable. The plot is well-crafted, moves along well, and is resolved more or less in a manner that I found acceptable. The magical system is, as other reviewers have rightfully noted, rather lightly sketched, but what we see of it is is interesting and well-drawn. But be aware that it has gaps i.e. I never did figure out how Rupert got from one reality to another. Nor is it terribly well established just how powerful the Magids are. None of this really matters, as Jones has written a delightful novel well-worth your time to read. And amazingly enough, the Starscape edition will set you back a mere $5.99 for a well-printed trade paper back!
GMR has also reviewed The Merlin Conspiracy, which is a kind of sequel to Deep Secret. Diana Wynne Jones has a Web site here.