I was about to read The Merlin Conspiracy when I remembered that it’s technically part of a series, of which this book is first. I have no idea whether it’s necessary to take them in order — I’ve only read The Merlin Conspiracy once, years ago — but I figured I might as well.
Deep Secret is the first of two Magid books, which take place in a multiverse setting that isn’t the Chrestomanci one (though you could probably find a way to graft them together). The worlds exist in a Mobius loop/infinity symbol configuration, one half of which is “Ayewards” and magically positive, the other half of which is “Naywards” and magically negative. In the middle is the Koryfonic Empire, straddling eleven worlds and going downhill fast. The entire thing is supervised in a fashion by Magids, who serve a collection of entities referred to as the Upper Room, who are sort of godlike, to the extent that their nature is ever made clear.
Rupert Venables, the most junior Magid, is having to deal with two problems at once. First, he has to find a replacement for a more senior Magid who just died (though Stan hangs around as a disembodied voice to help him out). Second, as junior Magid he’s in charge of the Koryfonic Empire, even though he lives on Earth, and the Empire is having some rather serious problems. His efforts to pick a replacement keep being interrupted as he gets dragged away from Earth to deal with problems on Koryfon — but, as the laws of narrative efficiency would lead you to expect, it turns out those two problems aren’t as unrelated as they seem.
Much of the pleasure of this book comes from its setting. You see, Rupert decides to simplify his Magid search by pulling all his candidates together in one place. The requirements of a magical node, the balancing of fatelines, and a mundane excuse to lure the people there mean that everybody winds up at a science fiction convention in Wantchester. And so the book is filled with lovingly-observed details about con culture: all the weirdness and friendliness and administrative drama that such events bring. (I seem to recall hearing once that the hotel — where, thanks to magical disturbances, one can make endless right-angle turns without ever coming back around to the elevator — was inspired by an actual hotel used by some con in Britain, probably one DWJ had been to. All I can say is, we’ve got one of those here in the States, too.)
I also quite like both Rupert and Maree Mallory, the other major protagonist in the story. Rupert takes a while to warm up — the first few pages aren’t as immediately engaging as in most of DWJ’s books — but Maree has a strong narrative voice. And this is a more adult book than most of hers; I think Rupert is twenty-six and Maree is twenty, and certainly there’s more in the way of swearing, sexual overtones, and explicit violence than I recall in the others. (Certainly it’s on the long side, compared to most.) All in all, I quite like it.
But I do have a couple of quibbles, plus some more spoilery things I like, which will go behind the cut.
First, I have to say the entire scheme with Janine and Gram White and Timos IX’s crazy paranoia and all the rest of it is kind of baroque and complicated. There was a point, re-reading this book, where I wanted to sit down and draw out a family tree to keep track of who was related to whom and how. But I can kind of cruise past that and not worry about it too much.
I have more difficulty with the structure of the book. It isn’t that it’s unclear; it’s just awkward. We have three first-person narrators: Rupert, Maree, and (at the very end) Nick. Because all three of their accounts are explicitly framed as being written after the fact, the narrative keeps jumping around in time, mostly in the form of Maree’s sections back-tracking to fill in gaps or give new context to events we’ve already seen. I would have liked for those to interchange more smoothly. And then once Maree is stripped, she no longer works as a narrator; she’s halfway out of it, and then even once she’s restored she has no chance to sit down at her computer (which is contaminated anyway), so we lose her point of view. And using Nick to describe the Babylon segment means that comes at the end of the novel, well after it took place. That allows the story to end on a more mystic note, I suppose, than if it ended with Koryfos straightening matters out, but it loses a lot of the tension because we already know how things turned out. I think I would have preferred the book to drop the explicit framing and just give a less-defined first person narration, that could shift around as needed.
But I honestly do love the Babylon stuff. The use of the rhyme here hit a button for me that hadn’t been pressed since Howl’s Moving Castle; it takes something real-world and inscribes an extra layer of meaning onto it, with a whole lot of cool tension alongside. The challenge of opening and maintaining the road long enough for them to go and come back is very effective, I think. I only wish the details of what happened along the way had been woven in there, cutting away probably on Maree saying she wanted her Dad cured, and then jumping to Rupert seeing Nick stumble back out.
Okay, I mean it this time. The Merlin Conspiracy is next.