Of the over forty books Diana Wynne Jones has written to date, I've read more than twenty. Her novel Fire and Hemlock, which draws on the legends of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, is one of my favorite books, period. Hence, I leapt at the chance to review her forthcoming The Merlin Conspiracy, and capered with glee when the ARC showed up in my mail box ("ARC" means "advance reading copy," and it's the uncorrected advance proof of an author's about-to-be-published book. We reviewers thrill to have them).
It took me about a day and a half to read The Merlin Conspiracy. It would have taken less time if I hadn't kept reminding myself, "Don't gulp. Slow down. You're reviewing this." I usually gulp Jones's books, the first time through. I can't help myself. Her pacing is lively, and the stories have strong unusual characters and predicaments that keep me enthralled, looking for the next crisis, the next revelation. Jones is the sort of author who doesn't save all her energy for one big climax. Rather, her stories are a series of unfoldings, of momentous actions with their own satisfaction, which at the same time serve to pull the reader forward, wanting to know how each character's decisions will start the next chain of events.
The Merlin Conspiracy opens, as Jones's books often do, by dropping the reader into the mind of a character, Arianrhod Hyde, who prefers to be called Roddy. Within a few pages, it's clear that Roddy's world is like ours, but different in some rather intriguing ways. Roddy lives in the Islands of Blest, a place rather like modern Great Britain, but a Great Britain stuffed with magic. The King's main job is to keep perpetually travelling around the country, visiting all the seats of power (actual magical power in this case) to keep the lines of magic alive and flowing. His court travels with him, naturally, in a fleet of buses that follow behind the royal limo. Roddy -- whose mother is one of the Court accountants, and whose father is one of the weather workers who make sure that the Royal Progress always has good weather -- has spent her life with the other court children in these buses, going to school onboard a bus, showering and eating in big tents, and so on.
Roddy and her friend Grundo are the sort of behind-the-scenes people who never get to do anything very exciting themselves, but always know which of the grandly waving royals and accompanying syccophants are actually nasty in person, which ones remember everyone's name, and when the king has a headache. All that changes, however, when they stumble on backroom plot to secretly -- and magically, of course -- spirit away the King's Merlin (his chief magician) and put an evil conspirator in his place. In the process, the conspirators unwittingly set loose a chain of events that could destroy the magic in Blest.
But it's not just about Blest. If things go wrong in Blest, it could start unravelling magic in other worlds all over the place. Hence, when Roddy performs a spell to call for magical help, it's Nick, a boy from another world, who comes to her aid, crossing -- and getting into magical trouble in -- all sorts of other worlds in the process. From this point on, Nick and Roddy take turns telling their versions of the story, which quickly develops a handful or two of twisty subplots involving an escaped zoo elephant, a rogue Magid, and a pair of nasty, conniving twins...
Anyone who has read Jones's novel Deep Secret, published by Victor Gollancz in 1997, will recognize Nick as a main character from that story; he or she will also be familiar with the Magids, who are a bit like magical watchmen or police, keeping an eye on the magic of all the worlds in the multiverse and making sure it doesn't get tangled or unbalanced. However, The Merlin Conspiracy is only a sequel to Deep Secret in the sense that some characters and the multiverse of worlds are the same. The stories are completely separate from one another, and can be read independently. Naturally, however, they also complement and enhance one another.
Like everything of Jones's that I've read, The Merlin Conspiracy is a great book. I don't think I'll be re-reading it over and over in the years to come, the way I do Fire and Hemlock, The Homeward Bounders and The Dark Lord of Derkholm. But it's definitely worth reading at least once! And while I don't think it's the best of Jones's forty-plus books, Jones on her worst day is still one of the best there is.
Diana Wynne Jones has a Web site at www.dianawynnejones.com. There's also another excellent, actively updated site devoted to her work called Chrestomanci Castle.