Set in a bizarre Britain

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Diana Wynne Jones The Merlin Conspiracy
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2004 (2003)
No 2 in The Magids mini-series

Until I first read this in 2004 my only previous acquaintance with Diana Wynne Jones was through her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Vista 1996), a thoroughly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek encyclopaedic tour of the conventions of post-Tolkien fantasy writing. This outing for the much-published children’s writer includes much of that irreverent humour (we meet an elephant called Mini and a coffee-addicted SF-detective writer called Maxwell Hyde, for example, whose name seems to be a compound of a well-known instant coffee brand and a literary split personality). And it all starts with the title, which is about a conspiracy concerning the Merlin.

From this we gather that the main setting for the plot is not Earth as we know it but an alternative world in a fictional multiverse. Nick Malory, supposedly originating from ‘our’ world, is eventually propelled into this other Britain which goes by the name of Blest; Blest is a rather apt name, not only for its Otherworld echoes in Greek and Celtic mythology but also because many of its denizens are witches and others adept at natural magic (such as the story’s other principal protagonist, Arianrhod). The conspiracy involves the replacement of ‘the Merlin’ — chief wizard of the country of Logres, England in our world — with a false Merlin. Naturally this has repercussions on Blest, its wider world and on parallel worlds. Oh, and did I mention time-travel as well?

Right up to its apocalyptic conclusion this is a very readable novel, despite its convoluted plot, and one you may well get through in very few sittings. For those with a penchant for legends a lot of the fun comes from spotting both the overt and subtler Arthurian references, along with undertones of William Blake and others. Then perhaps it’ll be time to search out those other titles of hers — such as Deep Secret, this book’s prequel in the Magids mini-series, or her posthumous The Islands of Chaldea, set in another bizarre Britain the equal of the Isles of the Blest.

  • March is remembered by Jones fans every year as an occasion to celebrate her work in the month of her death. DWJMarch (the brainchild of Kristen of the We Be Reading blog) — has now been expanded  to include Terry Pratchett and has therefore morphed into March Magics! This then is a DWJ taster in case I don’t get round to (re)reading one of her novels in March. By the way, this is an edited repost of an online review I did a few years ago for LibraryThing and Goodreads, adapted from a journal review I did around ten years or so ago
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9 thoughts on “Set in a bizarre Britain

    1. Yes, you should! Do look at my DWJ reviews (‘Related Posts’ or the featured list of topics will provide links) for guides as to what might take your fancy. There are a few more worthwhile titles to start with (though this is perfectly OK, of course!) and most are in print in newish editions at £6.99 or thereabouts, so shouldn’t break the bank!

  1. Interesting that this was your introduction to DWJ’s fiction (the Tough Guide doesn’t quite count there). It wouldn’t be my first suggestion, but clearly it worked for you! I haven’t read it as many times as some of my favorites, so I think I’m due for a reread. I have to decide what to read for Kristen’s March Magics event, and this might be it.

    1. I was encouraged to explore more of her books by the late Bill Russell, a correspondent of hers, and once I started never looked back! I agree, Lory, not a title from where to necessarily begin an acquaintance with her work but perfectly acceptable and always worth a re-read. Must do some DWJ catch-up in March — hmmm, how to fit it in?

  2. I think I want to finish the Christopher Chant series before I venture in other directions!

    What strikes me about your descriptions though is that it sounds SO Wynne-Jonesian! She’s definitely in my list of authors I’d invite to dinner, only in her case I’d rather it’s tea!

    1. I had a charming letter from her around the time that the film of Howl’s Moving Castle came out, her response suggesting that she indeed would be an ideal and enthusiastic conversationalist to have in a parlour of her own choosing! Such a loss.

        1. It was only a brief correspondence, and sadly it wasn’t that long before I heard that she was being treated for the cancer from which she eventually died. But yes, it would be nice to imagine a disembodied Diana smiling a bemused smile from whichever series alternative world she somehow found her way to!

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