Witch Week co-host Lizzie considers two fantasies in which treason and plot figure as a main trigger for the action.
Heavy Lies the Crown
I’m convinced that plotting is a common, often unconscious, human behavior against those in charge. Events akin to Antonio’s coup and Prospero’s later revenge happen to or are witnessed by anyone who has ever worked within a group – business, school, hospital, co-op board – although perhaps with fewer magical aides. Gossip during the office coffee break is but a form of plotting against the powerful, whether it be the CEO or the person with the key to the copy machine. After-work grumbles at the bar with a few colleagues slides easily into treasonous murmurs that could result in someone being deposed. Perhaps this is why we so enjoy tales of mutiny, rebellion, betrayal, treason.
Add royalty, and you’ve got yourself a story that could fly. Rulers live under the constant threat of their own violent death. Surrounded by secrets and lies, a ruler can’t help but wonder what a courtier, advisor, ambassador, minor aristocrat, bored guard, or miffed servant might be planning. Prospero, busy with his books, was spared this concern, but he’s a rarity, and he was lucky to have survived his own downfall.
Which brings me to today’s set of fantasy books, two novels about seditious plots to murder rulers and gain ultimate power.
Since Witch Week is in honor of Diana Wynne Jones, it is fitting to consider her fantasy novel about treasonous plots, The Merlin Conspiracy (Greenwillow, 2003). Even though a sequel to Deep Secret (1997), it works well as a stand-alone novel, with only one or two minor back-story references. Briefly: Roddy and Grundo, not siblings, are children of magicians and part of the massive court that follows the King’s Progress through the Kingdom of Blest. At the start of the novel, the King’s magician has just died and his replacement, the new “Merlin”, has arrived at court. Roddy and Grundo learn of a plot to overthrow the King, are joined by Nick (from the parallel universe of Earth), and work against conniving magicians to save the King, the Kingdom, the various parallel universes, and all the magic these universes contain.
Roddy and Nick narrate the novel, in alternate chapters, and within the first 50 words it becomes clear that they’re telling their story after it has ended. Roddy starts Chapter One with,
‘I have been with the Court all my life, traveling with the King’s Progress.’
I didn’t know how to go on. I sat and stared at this sentence, until Grundo said, “If you can’t do it, I will.”
This isn’t foreshadowing of the “Had I known then what I know now” sort. Instead, Jones plays with what readers generally assume when they start any children’s fantasy: the main characters of such tales always survive, no matter the odds. She winks at us, implying, “We all know Roddy and Grundo will be ok, and the first sentences tell us that they know this too. But they didn’t know it when they started the adventure, so let’s see if I can keep the dramatic tension sharp, if I can fool us all back into ignorance of the outcome.”
Roddy and Nick stay “in the moment” in their sections of the story, and only a careful reader, aware of how an incidental item someone spots in Chapter Four could play a crucial role in the story’s climactic scene, will take note and remember it. Jones is a master of this careful planting of clues and miscues – not just to the mystery of who’s involved in the treason, but to its resolution as well. We may already know that Roddy and Grundo will survive, but we don’t know how, and each twist complicates the unfolding plot, making it more and more difficult for Roddy and Grundo to get out safely.
With any treasonous plot, the main characters’ challenge is to discover who is involved, and especially who masterminded it. Jones tips her hand early, when Roddy and Grundo overhear two of the traitors discussing their plans. But before the children can warn anyone, they are whisked away from the court to Roddy’s grandfather’s farm. From this point on, the reader must decide whether each new character is friend or enemy. I felt this tug most strongly with Roddy’s two grandfathers, magicians both but otherwise completely different from each other. Good or bad? Help or hindrance? Loyalist or traitor? I wanted to trust them, but Jones continually surprised my expectations, keeping me guessing to almost the final pages.
But here’s the bigger question for me: Why is the idea of ultimate power so tempting, if achieving it risks utter disaster? In The Merlin Conspiracy, the plotters want absolute power. As they close in on it, they also bring nearer the complete collapse of their world. Success would bring them nothing! But they’re enthralled to the idea of power, and they’ve no choice but to finish what they started. Once begun, there’s no stopping.
In Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina (2012, Random House), also set in a royal court, the plotters are out for revenge rather than power, taking Treason and Plot in a different direction. It has been 40 years since the treaty that ended the dragon attacks and allowed dragons, in human form, to live and work in Goredd. But dragons, and those who consort with them, are still feared and hated, and sometimes brutalized by crowds of Goreddi men and boys.
Seraphina, a musician in the Queen’s court, has spent her life hiding in the open. Her dragon mother, in human form, had fallen in love with a Goreddi, and then died giving birth to Seraphina. Only Seraphina’s father and her dragon uncle (nearly always seen in human form) know that she is part-dragon, a secret she must keep from everyone else. As the anniversary of the treaty approaches, Seraphina is put in charge of the celebrations. But then, with the court in a flurry of activity, the shocking news arrives that the heir to the throne has been killed – beheaded. With no sign of the head, many believe that a dragon ate it. But why?
Hartman has set a challenging puzzle for her readers to solve as we watch Seraphina search for the murderer, whether dragon or human. What makes the puzzle tricky for us is the ability dragons have, to take on human form. Almost any human character could be a dragon in disguise, deciding on its next victim. On the other hand, humans could be behind the plot, hoping to rid Goridd of all dragons. There are plenty of humans who hate all dragons and want them all exterminated, and some of them have positions at court.
Seraphina must constantly wonder, whom should she trust? Who has most to gain or lose if the treaty is broken? Who would want to kill the crown prince? With her own secret to protect, she is surrounded by secrets and lies but must quickly build a network of allies to counter whatever is ahead.
Revenge is a powerful motive, the dish that is best served cold, they say. Hartman’s Seraphina shows the truth underlying the aphorism – a successful act of treason requires time. Not just days or weeks, but years. (Perhaps in allowing themselves only 18 months to plan their mass murder, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators made their first mistake.)
I’m sure most of my readers have been waiting for me to mention the Sword of Damocles. For plots of treason, I use it as a rating system, for the number of royal deaths (I know it’s insensitive of me, but I don’t count guards, soldiers or secondary conspirators) – a way to gauge the violence level. Tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth score high on this scale, comedies and romances like The Tempest usually come in at zero.
Three Swords (with asterisks, since the royal deaths were off-stage) for Seraphina, and none for The Merlin Conspiracy. I’m sorry if this feels like a spoiler, but note that I use the scale only for royal deaths. For the other characters, I’m saying nothing more than this: the main characters all survive (but you knew that already, didn’t you?)
Lizzie Ross is working on a sequel to her 2013 fantasy novel, Kenning Magic. She blogs at LizzieRossWriter.com. She and Chris at Calmgrove have co-hosted this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy since 2018.