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Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

Deep_Secret_CoverI'm beginning to think that Neil Gaiman is full of shit. In his introduction to Diana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody he wrote, 'It's a love story, and Diana Wynne Jones wrote very few love stories ... ' Well, all five of the DWJ novels I've read have been love stories! It's true, however, that Deep Secret isn't primarily a love story, and the love story is one of the least interesting aspects of the novel. Still, it's there, and it's very much of the same cloth as her other love stories, sharing with Howl's Moving Castle, for example, the way in which the love first looks like hate.

Anyway, Deep Secret has many things other than love on its mind. In fact, it's a rather complicated story; perhaps too complicated for its own good. It concerns Rupert Venables, a software developer in the UK who is also a Magid -- a wizard working for a secret organization of Archons who administer the multiverse. Rupert is charged with two things at the beginning of the story: to find a replacement Magid for his mentor and old friend, Stan, who has just died, and to help the Koryfonic Empire elsewhere in the multiverse to manage a succession crisis after the emperor is assassinated. The plot rockets out of the gate from the get-go, and the pace never lets up. This leads to an exhilarating ride for the most part, although the number of threads and characters proliferates to such an extent that it started to feel overly busy and fussy to me in the final third, before it sticks the ending with a magisterial bit of the mysterioso.

One big attraction of this book to inhabitants of the multiverse called Fandom is that most of it takes place at a science fiction convention, namely the British National Convention, or Eastercon. (I actually don't remember that it's ever referred to by that name in the book, but it's set on Easter weekend and has all the hallmarks of the national convention that we know and love.) I assume DWJ had first hand experience of such things, because her portrayal of the convention, while humorously exaggerated and satirical, felt like that of a seasoned pro. The ongoing joke about how the convention hotel, located in a mythical market town called Wantchester, is situated on a magical node that makes the hallway corridors work in non-Euclidean ways felt like it could have been a description of the hotel in Hinckley where I attended an Eastercon in 2003 -- or indeed any number of other confusing convention hotels where wandering the halls feels like an epic adventure that could lead just about anywhere except where you want to go.

As I think I've said after every DWJ book that I've read so far, one of her great strengths is character, and Deep Secret is again full of strong characters. Even the characters themselves note the strength of character of the people they meet in the story. Rupert is a bit of a prat, and Maree is pugnacious. Her younger cousin Nick has the selfish power to wriggle out of any situation that he can't be bothered with, and Rupert's brother Will is an earthy bohemian farmer. Zinka is a seductive sophisticate who calls her own tune, and Nick's father is a fantasy writer who thinks only of money and hasn't a creative bone in his body. It goes on and on, with characters in the Koryfonic Empire, including several centaurs, other Magids, other relatives to various characters (including centaurs), the committee running the convention, other potential Magids that Rupert is considering -- so many characters that I really did start to lose track of who was who by the end.

Jones' other terrific strength is her depiction of magic. I suppose I should try to analyze how she does it at some point. I'm reminded of Joanna Russ' old distinction between those writers who depict magic as a power external to the wielder, like a workshop tool, and those who depict it as something that changes them when they wield it. Jones is the latter type, I think. Rupert is the sort who probably thinks of magic as instrumental. He wields it automatically as problems arise, and seems at first to be a sort of mechanic (or software engineer) who fixes concrete, discrete issues in a methodical, logical way. But one of the things we learn about Rupert over the course of the story (and which he learns about himself) is that he's actually pretty careless and thoughtless in his seemingly methodical approach, and that what he does almost always has ramifications that he wasn't prepared for. Magic is much wilder than it seems to him, and it ends up transforming the situation -- and the characters -- in unexpected ways.

I wasn't always sure that Jones was in control of all the vast, bristling array of material that she tossed up into the air. As usual with her novels, the story felt dreamlike and alive, as though it were uncontrolled wild magic itself. Rupert isn't the only narrator, but when he's the viewpoint it always feels as though every last loose end is going to be tracked down, because that's his desire and belief. At times he felt like a character from a Gene Wolfe novel, busily asking questions to try to get at some discursive truth that keeps eluding him despite his persistent, patient efforts in the face of constant interruptions and new crises, always adding items to his mental To Do list in another kind of running joke. But the very fact that earlier in the novel Jones switches away from Rupert's point of view to give us a few alternating chapters from Maree's point of view, only to abandon Maree's point of view completely in the final third of the novel, began to feel like incredible sloppiness to me, as though (once again) the story's wild magic was getting away from Jones and leading her all over the place willy-nilly.

And perhaps it was. It doesn't help that the plot begins to feel like a very formulaic fantasy action-adventure with much running to-and-fro and sudden defeats followed by narrow victories, sneering villains, characters turning out to be secret heirs to empire, characters who hated each other turning out to actually love each other. In short it begins to make sense in fairly standard, predictable ways. But then at the very end she switches to yet a third character's point of view, which seemed like the final straw (really? now?!!!), the proof that Jones had completely lost control and was desperately trying anything to Explain It All At Last, and this ridiculous maneuver actually turns into something unexpectedly daring and profound. It's part of a section in which Rupert, Maree, and Nick have to report to the Archons on everything that's happened and face questions about things that don't make sense. Jones does an impressive job of addressing tiny details that were seemingly lost in the confusion along the way, but there's still this nagging feeling that it's all a bunch of hand-waving to distract us from the things that don't add up. And then Nick launches into a narrative about a mystical journey that he and Maree undertook earlier in the book while we, as readers, waited with Rupert for them to return, and the void opens beneath our feet to confront us directly. New mysteries are revealed that cannot be explained, even by the powerful Archons. The too-obvious world is once again shrouded in the deep secrets of the infinite multiverse.

So I mostly enjoyed Deep Secret very much. The way that it layers on the multiverse world-building (with great names and words another DWJ strength, e.g. Nayward and Ayeward directions) and then piles the convention experience on top of that is really quite something, rich and strange and organic and involving, even if the climax and the resolution to the action are more than a bit rote. But that coda makes up for a lot of formula. Amazing how many sins a good ending can salve.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 17th, 2013 07:24 pm (UTC)
I'll always have a soft spot for this book, Zinka is based on me, apparently (selling under the counter elf porn? Oh yeah...http://www.plokta.com/woodlore/card13.html)

Apr. 17th, 2013 07:59 pm (UTC)
That's awesome, FF! Zinka is pretty much the coolest character in the book. Are any of the other convention-goers based on people you know? I kept expecting Tobes and Anders Holmstrom to show up ...
Apr. 17th, 2013 08:13 pm (UTC)
It is flattering.

Terry Pratchett used my jewellery for Magarat Garlik and dragged me the whole length of a con to show me the model of Agnes Nitt. http://tinyurl.com/bw23asp I love him really...

Diane didn't know Anders or Tobes. She mostly knew the old time Eastercon crowd.

Apr. 17th, 2013 08:16 pm (UTC)
You content-provider, you!
Apr. 17th, 2013 08:26 pm (UTC)
Trawling for some data on the hotel, I found this comment, which turned out to have been written by me:

The hotel in Deep Secret is (of course) an amalgam of many hotels, including the Adelphi [Liverpool], the International Hotel, Marsh Wall, London, and a venue for a Milford Writers’ Workshop in the 1990s. It’s an obvious thought to wonder whether the corridors that don’t quite work are inspired by the Radisson (and anyone who does is in good company) and the dates do just fit (Deep Secret published in 1997, first Heathrow Eastercon in 1996,* though I don’t know if Wynne Jones was there). But Tanya Brown tells me that this aspect is actually inspired by the Chamberlain Hotel in Birmingham, venue of the 1995 Novacon. Note this anecdote from Ansible 101:

Diana Wynne Jones enjoyed an epiphany at Novacon when, after uttering the heartfelt cry, ‘God, this place is an evil little labyrinth!’, she found the other person in the lift was the hotel manager.

I now have no idea where I got most of that information from. But the first Hinkley Eastercon was in 2001, so that's too late to have been one of the sources.

* Not quite true. The 1978 Skycon was in Heathrow, in what was then the Heathrow Hotel but is now the Renaissance, across the road from the Radisson.

Edited at 2013-04-17 08:28 pm (UTC)
Apr. 17th, 2013 08:32 pm (UTC)
I love it! So much nuggety goodness in that.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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