Book Review: The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones

the merlin conspiracyFirst published in 2004 in The Star
THE MERLIN CONSPIRACY
By Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Collins Voyager, 480 pages
DIANA Wynne Jones. This name should be familiar to those of you who follow my weekly column. I have featured her books often and never miss the chance to say that I think she is a much better writer than J.K. Rowling whose Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rang dozens of bells when I first read it. If you know Jones’s work well, you will see how Rowling’s is so obviously derivative of it in terms of concepts, plots and even characters.

Of course, Jones has Rowling to thank for her publisher’s decision, a few years ago, to re-issue her back catalogue in response to public demand for children’s fantasy fiction (a direct result of the success of Harry Potter). Many of Jones’s best titles (she has written over 40) are now available in Malaysia for less than RM15 each and she is slowly but surely gaining a following.
I’m afraid I sulk when someone I’ve recommended a Jones book to fails to see what all the fuss is all about. Interestingly, often, they like one title but not another. In fact, while I have read and enjoyed over 20 of her books, there are some Jones titles that I just don’t get. What this says to me is that she is not a formulaic writer. Her ideas are fresh, she avoids being predictable or writing simply what her readers expect of her, and she doesn’t really go in for series.
For example, although the books Witch Week, The Magicians of Caprona, The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life, are marketed as part of The Chrestomanci Series, it is simply because one character, the powerful enchanter Christopher Chant, appears in each book. However, you can read the books in any order or even choose to read just one or two of the titles since they are really standalones.
Similarly, Castle in the Air is supposedly the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, and Year of the Griffin is the sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm only because they have some characters in common. The references to the stories that came first are minimal – you won’t be lost if you haven’t read them.
The Merlin Conspiracy is Jones’s latest book and it’s the supposed sequel to Deep Secret (1998) in as far as it’s set in the same multiverse and one of its main characters, Nick Mallory, made his first appearance in Deep Secret. The paperback has just been released in Malaysia and so, because I’ve been saving pennies, I have only just read the book (the hardback edition came out a year ago).
Let me just get it out of the way quickly that I don’t think it’s as good as Deep Secret, which is definitely on my list of Top 5 books by Jones. However, TMC is still a great book. I guess I’m disappointed because I’d hoped to find out more about my two favourite characters from Deep Secret and they’re not even mentioned here. I want to believe that Jones is saving them for another book, but I’m not overly optimistic.
To be honest, I find the complete absence of these characters in TMC quite odd, especially as one of them is Maree, Nick’s sister, whom he adores. It’s unlikely that he would not bring her up at all considering what they’ve been through in Deep Secret and what he has to go through now.
Apart from that, I think Deep Secret was meant for slightly older readers so it’s a lot more intense – much darker and much, much more disturbing. TMC isn’t exactly a walk in the park though. Jones deals with death and violence more candidly than most other children’s authors and both Deep Secret and TMC contain some pretty harrowing and bloody scenes, often thrown in so casually that you have to do a re-read before you realise exactly how horrific they are.
I don’t want to get into the plot because, with this book, I find it’s hard not to give too much away. Suffice to say that the story is told by two teenagers: Roddy, a girl with impressive magical pedigree (just wait till you see who her maternal grandfather is!) and Nick Mallory who, having acquired a taste for universe-hopping during his previous adventures, hopes to become a magid so he can continue to explore the infinite worlds out there.
Roddy uncovers a plot to overthrow the king of an alternate-universe England. In the meantime, Nick finds himself in another world and is convinced he’s dreaming until things get rapidly and scarily real. The two meet and realise that each has a vital part to play in maintaining the magical health throughout the universes.
TMC has more than its fair share of memorable characters, including Mini the elephant and Roddy’s terrible twin cousins, Isadora and Ilsabil. And, like all the characters in all Jones’s books, every one is essential to the plot and the action. This is why you can’t ever stop concentrating when you read TMC (or any other book by Jones). She keeps you hard at it the whole time, and the plot and the characters aren’t ever just flopping about, killing time (or space) on the page. At the end, you see how everything ties up and makes complete and beautiful sense. What a reward for not giving up!
Another reason why I like Jones so much is she never over-explains anything. I hate it when writers introduce a place or character, then go on and on about it. Jones just lets you find out more as you read on. Some things, I guess, she prefers to leave to your imagination. I think that makes her a very generous writer.
While The Merlin Conspiracy has not raced to the top of my list of favourite Diana Wynne Jones books, it just might have entered the Top 10 with a big bang.
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