The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones (Magids: Book 2)

Diana Wynne Jones has an odd way of writing sequels. Far from carrying on a story in a new volume, or even providing more adventures for her previous protagonists, her sequels are usually told from the perspective of entirely different people, take place in different parts of the world, or even entirely different worlds, and have little or nothing to do with the plot of the previous book. So, it was not a surprise to find that The Merlin Conspiracy was a very different book to Deep Secret with only a couple of characters, and almost no plot elements, in common. Then again, whether related to Deep Secret or not, there was no denying that; as is usual with Wynne Jones, The Merlin Conspiracy would feature complex, likable characters, weird worlds and madcap magics a plenty, and would be at the least fun, and quite possibly fantastic.

Arianrhod Hyde, aka Roddy, has grown up in the King’s Progress, the never ending royal tour of the isles of Blest which sees the King and his chief wizard, the Merlin, along with all his court and advisers riding around the country between nodes of power to reinforce the land’s magic. Though Roddy’s mam occasionally threatens to send her off to live with her grandfather in London, the Magid Maxwell Hyde, Roddy does not want to leave the Progress, particularly because then she could not take care of her friend Grundo, whose reading and magic skills are both backwards, and who is alternately overlooked or tormented by his horrible mother and sister. With the death of the Merlin however, everything changes, since Roddy and Grundo discover that the new Merlin is involved in a dire conspiracy to take power away from the King, and alter the whole balance of magic in Blest. Meanwhile, Nick Mallery wants nothing more than to learn magic and become a Magid, one of the magicians who keep the multiverse running smoothly. Nick has dreamed of travelling to other worlds so often, that when he finds himself unexpectedly stumbling into one, where he’s instantly mistaken for a novice magician, he first believes he’s dreaming, especially when he has a vision of just the kind of girl he likes, who tells him her name is Roddy and she’s looking for the help of a wizard to aid in the unravelling of a conspiracy.

The beginning of The Merlin Conspiracy took a little getting into. This isn’t because there was anything in particular wrong with it, merely that it was such a change in tone, style and setting from Deep Secret, that it might as well have been a completely different series. For a start, where Deep Secret featured two adult characters with adult concerns, it’s instantly clear that The Merlin Conspiracy is much closer to a lot of Wynne Jones' other books featuring younger protagonists. The book alternates perspectives between Roddy and Nick, with them separated for eleven of the book’s fourteen hours.

As the plot began, many of its beats felt familiar. The weird world, like a slightly less modern modern day with the inclusion of magic, the fact that Roddy spends most of her time being overlooked by busy adults, allowing her to discover the conspiracy, but nobody believes her about it because of her young age, even the very obviously nasty, overbearing villains. This isn’t to say the book wasn’t engaging, from Roddy’s caring relationship with Grundo, to discussions of magic that range from casually quirky, to beautiful and ancient, and a large and interesting secondary cast, however, I will admit that having the book essentially feel like a redux of the Chrestomanci series; especially after Deep Secret had been so different, was slightly disappointing.

Similarly, Nick’s story suffers very badly from Wynne Jones sequel syndrome, since even though Nick tells us of his desire to learn magic and become a magid, Rupert and Maree are literally never mentioned; especially egregious given how close he was to Maree. Indeed, when Nick first stumbles into another world, kicking off just the kind of fast thinking “pretending to be someone else”, type of situation familiar from books like Tale of Time City, Nick’s constant belief that it was a dream, and his seeming confusion about the existence of magic felt very odd, considering this is the same Nick who’d so successfully journeyed to mystical Babylon in the previous volume. Again, this isn’t to say the story was bad, since as predictable as its elements were, they were still colourful and fun, but nothing was really surprising.

Then things started to pick up. This was firstly because both Roddy and Nick’s stories suddenly went to unexpected places. Rather than seeing them stuck in one situation, Roddy and Grundo were required to chase across the country, looking to Roddy’s wacky relatives for help, while Nick found himself unexpectedly world hopping. This meant that from a fairly staid story of teenagers sneaking around an odd environment trying to cope with facts only they knew, we suddenly had a variety of journeys to strange, and often dangerous places, engaging with incomprehensible magic and other worlds, and full of the refreshingly unexpected.

On Nick’s side, this began when he stumbled into a surprisingly brutal, yet delicately described dystopia, but one depicted with such good humour, with the coffee deprived, scarcely awake Nick harangued by overly pompous police officers, and grumpily eating disgusting vegetables before deciding that maybe escaping would be a good idea, since life imprisonment or slavery really didn’t sound very nice. Even such unpleasant details as the poor of a society being forced to live in radioactive sunlight, or a code of incomprehensible laws where being seen in the wrong place could lead to draconian action was addressed adroitly. Indeed, Wynne Jones' gentle touch of social commentary, and the fact that she could show such a profoundly nasty situation, and yet still keep matters light was absolutely awesome.

On Roddy’s side, the gear shifted with a visit to her grandfather and an unexpected acquisition of magical knowledge, involving the tale of a peculiarly mistreated magician of the past, again showing a surprising level of darkness for Wynne Jones, as well as giving us some uncomfortable character insights about Roddy herself.

From this point on, the book opened up, and both stories went off in strange directions, with Nick running into the worlds’ most polite elephant, then having to take care of an unexpected magical assassin in a steadily morphing house, to Roddy’s encounter with two of the most hatefully manipulative little girls imaginable, along with their oblivious mother and doting grandmother.

Though the conspiracy did slightly fade into the background, with the constant variety of situations and changes in location, things kept feeling fresh and relatively fast moving, even if a few elements (such as a magical Panther Nick encounters), got a bit lost along the way. Indeed, the book over all felt more like a set of short stories strung together at this point, than a really coherent narrative.

For all of the craziness though, Wynne Jones never compromised her characters. It’s interesting that this is one book where, even though we get first person accounts from both protagonists, the way they perceive themselves, and the way others perceive them are entirely different, with Roddy’s flaws becoming more apparent as the book goes on; especially as she encounters those unafraid to tell her the truth about herself, and Nick’s strengths only recognised from an outsider perspective. Indeed with Nick, Wynne Jones actually manages to achieve what so many other writers strive for, a character incapable of recognising what a good person he is or what he means to those around him, since he always thinks less of himself; it’s almost jarring to hear the caring Nick describe himself as “selfish”, after we’ve witness him being anything but.

The only problem with the characterisation, is the point the two characters intersected. Roddy, for all we begin the book inclined to like her due to her care for Grundo, actually becomes a less appealing character as the plot goes on, especially with her developing a rather self-important streak, and her acquisition of magic knowledge simply feeding her ego.

Still worse, though Roddy definitely notices Nick’s infatuation with her, Roddy just pushes it aside as unimportant, with the closest thing they get to a moment of connection more due to the development of Roddy’s relationship with Grundo than Nick, and though Nick holding Roddy and understanding her complex, difficult personality was nice from his perspective, there was almost no reciprocation on her part.

One of the issues with the book; especially compared to Deep Secret, is that its two main characters meet up so far through, that there just isn’t enough time to really develop even the seeds of a relationship between them, and though Nick, as the more mature person is clear where he stands, Roddy remains frustratingly unfinished in her attitude.

Part of this might be because of the climax, since Wynne Jones has so many plot threads to pull together; several of them being lost, from ancient mythological figures, to trans dimensional wizards, to trips into almost futuristic other worlds, there just didn’t feel like time enough to deal with her characters fully, even having a couple of villains defeated who really hadn’t had quite enough time to be villainous. Though Wynne Jones does a fantastic job of bringing a very disparate set of secondary characters together, ranging from good, to comical, to down right vile, as with the many rather tangled threads of the book, there were almost too many secondary characters to let the primary characters breathe. Though the book’s climax is a surprisingly triumphant display of magic, with some fantastically poetic and nasty description, and quite the ordeal for Nick, resolution wise, it seemed that Roddy simply stops what’s happening a little too easily, and being as at this stage I was severely wanting Roddy to be deflated a little, while it was good for the multiverse that things got resolved, in terms of character, it felt rather lacking. Indeed, the book finishes quite abruptly, and I could well believe that both characters simply moved on and went their separate ways; hopefully with Nick realising his rather one sided infatuation did him no good, and finding someone nicer in the future. This isn’t to say Roddy is entirely unpleasant, but where Nick was very much a young man becoming an adult, Roddy remained firmly an adolescent; an at times very likable adolescent, but still someone who has a lot of growing up to do.

For all that, so much here was just plain fun, with unexpected twists and sparkling ideas, from city’s manifesting as people, to an England where the Scottish game of hurling is as popular as football, although a few other elements, including the magids of the series, get strangely side lined.

I could almost imagine that Wynne Jones started writing The Merlin Conspiracy in something of a flat mood, realised she was retreading old ground, went off, drank seven cups of coffee for inspiration, and stuck in every short story idea she’d got in a draw, frantically writing a quick linking narration, and then, just as the caffeine high was calming down, realised she needed a conclusion so drank another seven cups of coffee, threw as much as she could into the climax, slammed the book shut on her characters, and sent the whole mess off to her publisher before collapsing and sleeping for a week!

This makes it an insane thrill ride full of wonderful individual moments, with a conclusion that very nearly works just for how audaciously it throws things together, but not particularly an adequate sequel to the far more character focused and generally relaxed Deep Secret. This doesn’t make it a bad book, I don’t think Wynne Jones is capable of writing a bad book, but it does make it a bad sequel, indeed it’s notable that many of the positive reviews I found on goodreads are from people who didn’t even know that The Merlin Conspiracy is a sequel. Then again, there is just so much here to like, with even the book’s most pedestrian moments taking place in a very different world, full of quirky and colourful characters, that for the most part, the unfinished plot threads and characterisations only really tend to matter if, (like Rupert Venables from Deep Secret, and indeed myself, as well), you’re inclined to analyse everything a bit too much.

8/10 Magical Mystery Tour

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