When I read about the Diana Wynne Jones Week that Jenny is hosting over at Jenny’s Books, I decided that, instead of re-reading a favorite, it was the perfect time to pick one of her many novels I hadn’t read yet. I chose The Merlin Conspiracy, and I have to thank Jenny for prompting me to read it, because it’s absolutely got to be in the top four of hers that I’ve read, along with Fire and Hemlock (always first!), Homeward Bounders, and Dogsbody. Just fantastic, in the wonderful complex confusing satisfying way that Jones is so good at and almost no one else ever is.
The story opens in an alternate England called Blest, where a young court page named Arianrhod Hyde and her friend Grundo follow the King’s Progress round and round the island to keep the magic healthy. It’s not long before a crisis occurs: the old Merlin (a court official in charge of the magic of the multiverse) dies in his tracks, and a new Merlin is instituted. Soon after the change, Roddy and Grundo, who are rather good at magic themselves, stumble on a conspiracy to upset the balance of the worlds’ magic, involving the Merlin, some other court officials, and Grundo’s mother. Before they can tell anyone, they are whisked away to visit Roddy’s grim and silent grandfather in Wales — a grandfather who is much, much more than he seems.
Meanwhile (there doesn’t seem as if there needs to be a meanwhile, but oh my word, there is), young Nick Mallory lives in our world and spends most of his time trying to get into other worlds. (He wants to be a Magid, someone who can travel between worlds and balance their magic, but the Magids won’t hear of training him.) When he finally finds his way, however, it’s not at all what he thought: he stumbles from world to world, trying to help people and mostly getting into worse and worse trouble. He meets the great and powerful Romanov, but he also meets a panther, a dragon, and a very charming elephant. And last, he meets Roddy, who is in desperate need of his help.
This novel is told in alternating sections between Roddy’s voice and Nick’s. Each section has its own character, so strong it lifts from the page. There are at least four main worlds here, and several smaller ones, and every detail of every one of them is so vividly imagined that you could believe it went on living when you weren’t looking, or when you turned the page. All the creatures, from Little People to salamanders to angels and tutelary spirits, have their own place in the order of things, and Jones makes it clear that each has its own business to perform. And every world is like this, interdependent and intradependent, like the tapestries woven in one of the worlds we visit. It’s done to perfection, and never over-done; no creature shouts “look at me!” but simply disappears around a corner or sits licking itself, because that’s what it would do anyway.
Perhaps the other theme I noticed most in the novel is the strong desire for control, battling that natural interdependence. Of course that’s what the conspiracy is all about, and that’s obvious enough, but there are other, wonderful examples. At one point, Roddy is mysteriously led to a place in the Welsh hills where she is given the entire magical lore of a long-ago witch. That witch had a shattered hip, because the chief of the town wanted to control her, and for a while Roddy shares the woman’s pain and bitterness as well as her immense power. This same desire for control is echoed, later, in Roddy’s own life, in a different though equally crippling way.
I wish I could tell you how rich this book is. There is Welsh legend (I recognized it from Susan Cooper’s novels, equally worth reading), and complex ideas about gender, and fantastic meals, and secrets, and love. There is a strong sense of place, even though the place is not our place, and a strong sense of people we could never know. Diana Wynne Jones is so good! And this is really among her very best.