The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow/HarperCollins HCVR: ISBN0060523182 PubDate: April, 2003
Review by Victoria McManus
464 pages List price 16.99
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British author Diana Wynne Jones is perhaps best known among fans for her Hugo-nominated Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a guidebook-style spoof of epic fantasy trilogies. Prior to that, however, Jones published over thirty fantasy novels, most of them for young adults, including among them Dogsbody and the Chronicles of Chrestomanci. She won a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Dark Lord of Derkholm (1999). The Merlin Conspiracy is her first young adult novel in more than a decade; though a sequel to Deep Secret (1997), the book is aimed at a younger audience, judging from the age of the protagonists (not always an accurate gauge, but here apparently correct).
The Merlin Conspiracy moves between the first-person points of view of Nick, a teenage character who appeared in Deep Secret, and Roddy, who is a wizard and the daughter of wizards in the world called Blest. Blest is a central point from which many universes radiate; the balance of magic there can affect magic in thousands of other worlds. Blest's magic is tended by a male Merlin and a female Lady of Governance. Humans with magic can sometimes move among these parallel worlds, and the Magids, who can move across worlds easily, try to help keep the balance stable.
In The Merlin Conspiracy, Blest is threatened by an unscrupulous villain who wishes to take more than his share of power; if he succeeds, more than just Blest will shift into dark magic. Roddy and her young friend Grundo overhear part of the villain's conspiracy, but are unable to convince adults to believe the danger, and so must seek help from another world. Nick, who lives in our world or one close to it, answers Roddy's call and together with Roddy's Magid grandfather, a free agent wizard named Romanov, and Mimi the elephant, manages to save Blest; but will it ever be the same?
Jones' magical worldbuilding is intriguing and complex; one gets a clear sense of how it could extend further than what one reads. Through Nick's eyes, we see that the Islands of Blest look much like our British Isles, with some differences of shoreline and distance from Europe. Jones uses small changes like that to differentiate between her series of parallel worlds. For example, in Blest, magic "speakers" are used instead of phones; cars run on something different from gasoline but just as smelly; and a game called hurley takes the place of football. Other parallel worlds are more startlingly different, such as the world Nick visits where cities are dug into tall cliffs connected by stairs, and the top levels are dangerously irradiated from the sun.
The chief strength of the book is in its characters. Roddy, Grundo, and Nick are all young but also complex, flawed beings who sometimes act according to their worst impulses. They each have wants and needs outside of the immediate plot. The characters' paths are hampered by small realistic dangers, such as when Roddy and Grundo cannot find a speaker to contact Roddy's family. Frustrations abound to block them from their goals, just as in real life. Best yet, Jones does not attempt to force a single point of view on her readers. She allows them to form their own impressions of the characters, and that alone makes The Merlin Conspiracy an invigorating read.