The Merlin Conspiracy

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.

This entry was posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Merlin Conspiracy

  1. Jenny says:

    When my grandmother gave me this book for Christmas, she put $1 bills in it, at intervals throughout. I took them and went and got coffee and a cookie and snuggled into an armchair to finish reading. So although this is not my favorite of all DWJ’s books, it’s one of my favorite DWJ reading memories.

    I’m glad you liked this book! I thought the elephant was going to be too much, but I ended up loving her. That’s Diana Wynne Jones for you. And I loved the–cousins? Am I remembering that wrong? There were female relatives who cooed and caused trouble, but I can’t remember what relation they were to Roddy.

    • Jenny says:

      Um, cousins, I think. Yes, I didn’t mention even a quarter of the characters, of whom I think there are about 35. And I thought the elephant was going to be OTT, too, and then not! Lovely stuff, as usual.

    • trapunto says:

      What an awesome Grandmother! I liked the cousins too. Shudder.

  2. Kristen M. says:

    I just finished Dogsbody and loved it! I haven’t read The Merlin Conspiracy yet. I borrowed it from the library but then chose to read other ones instead. I will definitely get to it though!

    • Jenny says:

      Dogsbody is wonnnnnderful, among my top favorites (of the ones I’ve read! Which is really not that many, considering she’s written almost 40 novels.) Let me know what you think of this one when you get to it!

  3. Heather says:

    I am so enjoying reading all these DWJ Week posts. I read Charmed Life over and over as a kid, but somehow didn’t read anything else by her until more recently, and now I’m finding still more of her books that I want to read! This sounds like a really good one: what you say about there being a strong sense of place is especially appealing to me.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I love Charmed Life! I seem to like her standalones best, but everything is so good, it’s hard to pick.

  4. Pingback: Rounding up links (part 1) « Jenny's Books

  5. Amy says:

    Well, that’s one more books to add to the Diana Wynne Jones to read list. I’m loving all the posts and reviews this week.

  6. Shanra says:

    Oooh! Someone else read “The Merlin Conspiracy” too. Yay!

    My reaction wasn’t as positive as yours, but I still enjoyed it a lot. ^-^

  7. Trapunto says:

    I forgot how excellent this was. Thanks for your review. Creatures that disappear around a corner around the corner or sit licking themselves–yes, so true of DWJ!

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