sodgers at tassie.net.au
Thu Aug 26 08:37:05 EDT 2004
It's a while since I read Merlin, but here's a review I did at the time.
The Merlin Conspiracy is a follow up to DWJ's earlier book "Deep Secret". It must be close to the same length, but was written for children rather than adults. Very little mention is made of the events in Deep Secret, and only two characters from that book reappear in the flesh. Indeed, (I think) only two or three others (Nick Mallory's deceased birth parents and his half brother) are even mentioned, which disappointed me a little. I'd like to know what had happened to Maree and Rupert.
Nick is still fourteen, I think, so the events in "MC" must take place less than a year after those in "DS". He is still determined to become a Magid, and his Earth dad, Ted Mallory, is still attending conventions. And this is about all we learn that pertains to the previous book.
Like "DS", the story is told in dual first person, with Nick being one narrator and Arianrhod Hyde, (known as "Roddy") the other. Roddy lives in Blest, which is another version of the British Isles. London, Salisbury and Stonehenge and Wales all exist under those names, but the King of Blest travels constantly about the land. With him travels the court, made up mostly of wizards and their relatives, some of whom have magic. Roddy is the daughter of a weather wizard and a witch, both of whom seem pleasant and ordinary people (so far as a magic-user can be ordinary!). It therefore comes as a slight shock, later in the book, to meet Roddy's two grandfathers who are very far from ordinary.
Roddy is a little tired of travelling with the court, and spends much of her time protecting her slightly younger friend Grundo, who is dyslexic in magic as well as reading and writing. As the King's Progress nears Wales, Roddy's mother gets a message that Roddy is to go and visit her maternal grandfather at his manse. (Shades of DWJ's own grandfather?) Mam seems very shaken by this, and Roddy agrees to go if Grundo can accompany her.
Meanwhile, Nick Mallory is reluctantly attending a detective writers' convention with his dad. Tom Mallory wants to meet his favourite author, Maxwell Hyde, but just as he's on the point of achieving this ambition, someone murmurs "Off you go!" to Nick, who promptly finds himself in another world. Without giving away too much, I can say that Nick is soon caught up with a quasi-security force which contains a very large man named Arnold. And yes, I do think DWJ did it on purpose. On the run, Nick encounters big cats, a drunk, a beautiful girl and a most charming elephant, all three of whom need his help. He meets an assassin, and changes the destiny of a city. He encounters some truly horrible food and a clever world-skipping goat, as well as an extraordinarily powerful man named Romanov.
Meanwhile, Roddy has been given a huge source of power and she and Grundo have made some terrifying discoveries of treason and wickedness to do with the new Merlin (the King's official wizard) and Grundo's mother and her lover. Roddy desperately needs help, which comes in the form of a world-travelling teenage wizard, the very amateur Nick.
The story, though long, never lags, and some of DWJ's most felicitous characters flock its pages. Mini the elephant is wonderful, Sybil is a thoroughly wicked villain. There is a pair of brilliantly conceived twins, and a wonderful old witch in the mode of Howl's old tutor Mrs Pendragon from "Howl's Moving Castle". There are echoes of many other books here too - Roddy's grandmother could be a sister to the elderly witch in "A Sudden Wild Magic", while the wicked, the weak and the untrustworthy seem to have their roots in "The Lives of Christopher Chant". Human relationships get a serve too, in typical DWJ fashion, with parent/child, sibling/sibling, husband/wife relationships all under the eyeglass.
There's even another (and mostly benign) version of the thoroughly unbenign thornlady in "DS", plus some hints of "Archer's Goon" in characters who are really personifications. And of course there are plenty of twists in the tale that I defy anyone to sniff out ahead of time. I was taken totally by surprise on at least three occasions by events and explanations that seemed perfectly obvious in hindsight.
A few points - I'd love to have learned more about the panther, Gwyn and Maxwell Hyde, Mini and Helga and even Romanov. There were hints about all these characters' backstories and origins that I wish I could have followed up. The ending is marvellously controlled; a typical tightly woven DWJ ending, but easier to understand than that of "Fire and Hemlock" or even "Howl's Moving Castle". The last note is in a minor key, hinting at something more to come, although, knowing DWJ, this mightn't mean a promise. Then there are the salamanders, the dragon, the beings, the little folk... all the wonderful ingredients used with such precision that there's never the slightest hint that anything has been put there for effect. This is *easily the best longer book I've read this year and probably last year too. It would be most unfair to compare it with shorter (say 30K) books, so I won't.
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