By the candles of Babylon, there we sat down, yeah we wept
Diana Wynne Jones is an author I really wish I’d been able to read more of while growing up, but was unfortunately unable to due to the ever present ogre of my childhood: lack of availability in audio. Happily now that I am grown up (or so people tell me), and said ogre has been metaphorically slain thanks to modern technology, I can not only read all the Wynne Jones I want, but also have the fun of doing so along with my lady, who I am pleased to say is now a total convert.
Rupert Venables is a magid, one of a group of highly powerful magicians responsible for seeing that the multiverse runs smoothly, and that worlds progress from Naywards, negatively inclined and suspicious or unaware of magic, to Ayewards. Rupert had thought he’d been doing a fairly reasonable job, until two major problems drop into his lap. The first, is the assassination and death of the emperor of the world spanning Koryphonic empire, and the need to find where the ever secretive emperor secreted his heir before the empire descends into civil war. The second, is the death of Rupert’s mentor Stan, and the job of finding a replacement magid.
One of these possible replacements is Maree Malory, an aggressively compassionate, prickly and impulsive student vet. Even though Rupert quickly decides Maree is entirely unsuitable as magid material, a problematic misspelling of fate lines draws Maree and Rupert together at a science fiction convention, one unfortunately held in a hotel right above a magical node.
With centaurs popping out of thin air, extra dimensional ducks and a dark conspiracy against the empire, not to mention a bunch of people who regard magic as perfectly normal interacting with a bunch of people who regard reading about magic as perfectly normal, Rupert might just find that he’s not as clever as he thinks he is, and everything will hinge on a deep secret of the magids, and the answer to the question “how many miles to Babylon?”
The book is written as two opposing sets of diary entries, one set from Maree, the other from Rupert. Framing the book this way, while it is almost painfully obvious that part of the book’s resolution will be a romance between its main characters, at the same time, it does a wonderful job of giving us each characters’ contrasting perspectives and the ways they bounce off each other. It says a lot for Wynne Jones style that even though Rupert, as the world hopping magid who sets out to deal with magical issues, has the most mystery to impart, and is the most involved with fantasy elements, neither characters’ perspective feels dull or short changed, and Rupert’s casual dealing with magical issues from a ghostly mentor’s love of music, to having to crack a computer virus that bends reality, is no less interesting than Maree’s snap judgements, inadequate finances, rather overblown heart break at the break up from a recent boyfriend, or her exasperated, bemused love for a cousin who is more like a surrogate brother.
Needless to say, with both character’s it’s dislike at first sight following the least cute meet cute imaginable (it involves traffic jams, a role playing game version of Bristol and witchy dancing), the destination of the romance is always well in view. Wynne Jones is one of a very few authors I’ve found however, who can make the creaky old mutual dislike turning to love trope actually work, both by showing the circumstances in which the dislike comes about, and in having the characters' feelings towards each other change and modify according to time and circumstances. Indeed, I liked how throughout the book both characters were always able to surprise me, whether the flighty Maree suddenly turning into a competent veterinary surgeon when circumstance gave her a situation she could deal with, or the fusty Rupert proving oddly ready to take on the chaotic affection from a hoard of younger nieces and farm animals in a visit to his brother Will.
Another thing which makes both perspectives highly equal and interesting, despite Rupert having the lion’s share of knowledge of what is truly going on, is the fact that Rupert and Maree each have their own supporting characters and concerns, from Maree’s horribly unpleasant aunt, to Rupert’s distantly wise ex-lover the artist Zinka. The way Wynne Jones lets each characters’ perspective illustrate how they feel about those around them, in an often extremely understated way is absolutely masterful, employing the rule of show, don’t tell in matters such as how close Rupert is to his old mentor or his brother, or letting us know how much Maree cares for her cousin simply by her knowledge of his early morning waking habits and her willingness to provide ample coffee (a gesture of love I’m lucky enough to receive on occasion myself from my lady).
One problem with the book, is that the progression of the plot feels slightly aimless; even sporadic, with Rupert having to dash back to the further collapsing empire to find clues in a hunt for an heir, then jump back to earth to check on potential new magid candidates, indeed the plot proper doesn’t really start until a few hours in when we get to a science fiction convention.
The convention is as both comically disorganised and downright weird as you’d expect from Wynne Jones, with insultingly laconic Dutchmen, harried organisers desperately trying to keep writers from causing a scene, and science fiction fans running around in various states of costume and aggravation, indeed this reminded me heavily of Connie Willis award winning story At the Rialto, though with a dose of Wynne Jones dry English humour and almost Monty Python like seriousness in the face of the surreal.
Some people have called the book slow or confusing, and I can understand why. Part of the problem is that dropping into a war torn empire for some of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen Wynne Jones write, feels so violently at odds to the rest of the book’s weird comedy.
Another issue, is that since Rupert (though not quite as relaxed as his brother Will), tends to approach everything, from overbearing aura-obsessed American ladies, to injured centaurs showing up unexpectedly, with a dryly exasperated, and, yes I have to admit, rather typically English lack of excitement, in stark contrast to Maree.
This often means that the plot doesn’t necessarily have the urgency that it should have, since Rupert handles world shattering magid business with such a wonderfully harried sense of normality. Indeed, the opposition of Maree’s emotional effusiveness and Rupert’s perturbed fussiness actually provides a considerable amount of humour on its own.
Unfortunately, one minor issue I did have with at least some of the humour, was with Wendy, a member of the convention’s organising committee who is fat. We realise she is fat because both Rupert and Maree continually remind us she is, often in comical ways.
I do not necessarily mind aspects of a character’s physical appearance being depicted as ridiculous or repellent, if that person has a ridiculous or repellent personality, after all, Dudley or Vernon Dursley’s nastiness isn’t due to their weight any more than Molly Weasley’s Kindness is, however the fact that Dudley and Uncle Vernon are hateful characters also makes their girth into something hateful. Indeed, Wynne Jones did a great job of showing the ridiculous side of an overbearing, overweight character in Christopher Chant’s Doctor Porson.
However, here, basically Wendy just came across as a fairly nice, if rather busy convention committee member, so mentions of the loud thud she made when her body hits the floor or her waving her “fat hands”, seemed a little needlessly cruel. Indeed, it was quite a contrast to the affectionate way Maree spoke of her “little fat dad”.
Two thirds through the book, matters picked up drastically, with another surprisingly shocking scene from Wynne Jones, and the matter of the imperial heir taking on a true urgency. While I was slightly disappointed that this also meant we at least temporarily lost Maree’s perspective, it did introduce one of the most interesting climaxes in the book, both emotionally, and magically, in which Maree receives an injury, and even as he realises his feelings for her, Rupert is forced to wait on the sidelines while others journey to an unknown mystical destination to risk their lives on her behalf.
Oddly enough, the simple tension of Rupert sitting and waiting, lighting candles over a long night and wondering about the integrity of those he’d sent with Maree was almost as tense as if he’d gone himself, and not only a lovely way to indicate the depth of Rupert’s feelings for Maree without ever going near the saccharine, but also showing the growth of some other characters to best effect.
The climax when it came, was almost disappointing, although it featured the unmasking of several villains and a uniquely nasty magical battle. Unfortunately, while this battle began with Rupert making a slightly too obvious mistake, and simply letting a powerful opponent go who was only partly neutralised, the battle generally did what it was supposed to do, and have the good guys combine their talents, last minute reprieves and some appallingly blasé uses of power.
While the resolution to the empire’s plot was slightly a deus ex machina; almost literally a Robin Hood style ending, here it was definitely the characters who took centre stage, and from that angle the resolution worked extremely well. Even though Rupert and Maree’s romance was an absolutely predictable beat in the plot, this was one occasion when I just liked the characters enough to want to see them get together. Indeed, I was rather amused that several reviewers felt the romance was slightly out of left field given that Maree and Rupert never really embark on long conversations about their feelings, or have many of the standard romantic formulae. Oddly enough though, the very down to earth, hand holding reality, exchanging of smiles and plans, not to mention Rupert’s sudden beautiful, half self-mocking realisation upon holding an injured Maree just what sort of person Maree is, and what she means to him made this one absolutely work.
One of the strangest parts of the book was the final two hours. After the plot had seemingly already wrapped up, we get a retrospective report from a different character on the magical journey undertaken to cure Maree. This was a little strange, ending the story with what is virtually a self-contained novella set earlier during the same story, and with a character who, though present from the beginning, we’d not had a perspective from before.
I honestly can’t say whether this was a good thing or not. When the idea of the magical journey is introduced, I was sure Rupert would end up embarking on it himself before the book finished, and I remarked to my lady I’d be disappointed if we didn’t see this journey first hand. Yet, at the same time, once the plots resolved, I didn’t feel at all short changed for missing it, and loved following Rupert’s lonely vigil.
While doing it later answered questions, as well as lead to a truly fantastic and ineffable road of trials (I admit, I’m always a sucker for a good journey story), at the same time, since we already knew the outcome of the journey, the odyssey didn’t perhaps have the tension it should have done. I almost wish Wynne Jones had found a way to integrate the account of the journey into the text at the point it happened, although that would have totally missed out on the reader being in the same position as Rupert, watching for the travellers’ return, which would’ve been a shame.
All in all, it was a rather odd move, and I’m not entirely sure whether it worked or not, and unfortunately, with it taking up the end of the story, it did leave a slightly ambiguous aftertaste.
Deep Secret, along with A Sudden Wild Magic, is listed as one of only two of Wynne Jones’ books for adults. Wynne Jones apparently believed that the sort of things she enjoyed writing about, magic, parallel worlds and so on, were not compatible with adult literature. This also means both that her books for children and young adults contain all the complex characters, detailed relations and unique world building any adult reader could wish, and that when she did write for adults, essentially she does almost the same thing as when writing for young adults or children, just with the addition of a bit of sex or strong language here and there.
Where A Sudden Wild Magic revelled in the sex a little, Deep Secret just has it as an aside, with Rupert or Maree noting the gorgeousness of members of the opposite sex, and (on Rupert’s part), occasionally a lady’s figure (especially when said lady is wearing a rather minimal Barbarian outfit), indeed there is apparently a YA copy of Deep Secret which essentially removes a few mentions of sex and substitutes “bother”, for “damn” (though amusingly enough, keeps in the few shocking scenes of violence).
Despite featuring two adult main characters, I am not sure myself, whether Deep Secret counts as adult, or young adult;. What you do have however, is a surreal romance between two flawed and unique people whose perspectives are shown in absolute detail, along with magic, surreal social comedy about people who love fantasy, and the hints of a dark otherworldly war into the bargain.
Though the plot is a little slow and not always clear, the sweet, believable romance, colourful characters, continual social comedy and even a bit of gentle poking fun at fantasy writers and fans, serve as the bow around a very mysterious box of surprises.
Review by Dark
8.3/10 from 1 reviews
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