The Merlin Conspiracy
Reviewed: December 31, 2004
By: Diana Wynne-Jones
473 pages, $10.99
It's a conceit of fantastic literature that there are more worlds than the
one we know so well. Here we have a tale of two of them, with a few others
thrown into the mix for good measure.
Another mainstay of the genre is the notion that time is not necessarily the
constant that Einstein suggested it might be, so that it might flow faster or
slower depending on where you are and whether you are actually in a world, or in
some place between worlds.
Two young people spend much of this novel dealing with various expressions of
these two concepts. The stories are told to us in alternating first person
narratives which eventually come together at about the midpoint of the story.
The publisher has made it easier for us to keep them straight by alternating
serif and sans-serif type faces.
Roddy (for Arianrhod) Hyde lives in a world where England is known as the
Isles of Blest. Since her father is in charge of weather for the kingdom she
lives as part of the travelling court known as the King's Progress. Each year
the King has to visit every part of the Land, and renew its connection to the
magic of the Earth.
Being part of the Progress is not, actually, a lot of fun for a young teen
who is also an only child and doesn't get to see that much of her parents - or
of anyone except members of the court, who tend to be over bearing and full of
Things begin to go wrong in Blest when the Merlin, the court official in
charge of all the ceremonies, dies, and his successor is chosen. From that point
on it appears that some of the more ambitious members of the court are planning
a mystic coup d'état, once involves the forcible conscription of Roddy's
grandfather into their number.
Meanwhile Nick Mallory is in equally confusing straits, but for a different
reason. Nick seems to live in our world, where his father writes horror stories.
They are attending a perfectly ordinary writer's convention when Nick steps
sideways to get out of someone's way, hears that person say "off you go,
then" and finds himself very much elsewhere.
Nick isn't entirely taken aback by this. He knows that there were other
worlds and that his dad is able to travel to them, and he hopes some day to be
able to do the same as a magrid, but he'd never done it before and he doesn't
know how it happened or how to get back home. Just trying not to get caught as
an intruder or spy (for he finds he has been mistaken for a novice mystic, part
of a royal guard in another world) causes him to do several other things he's
never done before and to meet Romanov, an advanced mystic who becomes quite
important as the story progresses.
There is, it emerges, a plot to upset the ordinary flows of magic in all the
worlds, all part of a vengeance scheme which Nick (remember that time thing) is
able to witness from beginning to end in a sort of sideways fashion.
Both Roddy and Nick acquire abilities as the story goes on, abilities over
which they do not have absolute control. They have to learn have to learn a lot
about themselves, about the people around them and, eventually, about each
other, in order to figure out just what needs to be done to prevent the
conspiracy from succeeding.
Wynne-Jones has a marvelous touch with this sort of story and seems able to
tune the familiar elements to whatever effect she wishes to accomplish. The
flavour of this book is quite different from the Dalemark series which I
reviewed here last year, and yet it is clear the same masterful author is at
The Isles of Blest, which is the most consistent setting, comes across as a
pretty complete place, with some very interesting rules regarding the Little
People, the operation of magic, and the sort of society that might develop in
such a place.
It isn't that easy to write about dislocations in time and place and do it
well, but The Merlin Conspiracy is a clear example of good the effect can
be when it's done right.