A theory which frequently emerges in critical discussion of Diana Wynne Jones's fantasies is that, on the whole, she probably does it all by witchcraft. Certainly she casts a spell. At a 1997 British convention, where Diana held court at a lounge table strewn with implausibly many empty glasses – her head supported by a neck-brace embellished for complex reasons with a frieze of naked dancing nymphs drawn by a Fantasy Encyclopedia contributing editor – I distinctly misremember John Clute saying: 'She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and she has a truly remarkable capacity for beer.' Whereupon the living national treasure remarked that, this being so, it was Clute's round.
But I digress.
Deep Secret shares a number of very Jonesian characteristics with A Sudden Wild Magic, also written for adults, and Hexwood and A Tale of Time City, which are ostensibly for "young adult" readers. There is a daft and complicated multiverse presided over by an inner ring of fallible guardians, an entangling of science and enchantment, a preposterous plot, a large cast list featuring numerous characters who prove to be wearing masks over secret identities (see also her Castle in the Air), a hidden saviour, and outrageous juxtapositions of tragedy, farce, high melodrama and high fantasy.
All this is told in a deceptively breathless style, as though the words were just bubbling unchecked from the wells of imagination. A second reading reveals, soberingly, how many apparent decorative flourishes and fragments of byplay are efficiently laying groundwork for revelations to come. It is one of the author's contentions that adult readers, skimming lazily, miss all sorts of little hints which are picked up by children....
The story? The initially slightly smug narrator Rupert Venables is one of the magic-wielding secret guardians known as the Magids. Though stationed on Earth, he also has a rotten time with the horrible, oppressive Empire of Koryfos whose worlds lie at the heart of the multiverse. Meanwhile, closer to home, Earth's senior Magid has died and (though hanging on as a ghost and specializing in audible haunting of CD players) must be replaced. The potential recruits are all fairly appalling, but it seems a sufficient hint of things to come that the candidate who most appals Rupert – a frumpish and grumpy young woman called Maree Mallory – soon gets her own first-person narrative thread. Meanwhile, offstage, the Empire falls and the hunt is on for the true heirs (all hidden away by a paranoid Emperor), some of whom may even be centaurs from the more magic-ridden worlds.
For reasons which seem practically logical as they develop, all the varied fate-lines converge on a particular nexus close to the hearts of many readers: a science fiction convention, held in an imaginary English town whose name doesn't matter, since the 'Hotel Babylon' is highly recognizable. Downstairs, it's evidently the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, a favourite Eastercon site whose vast lounge was and is decorated to reflect that of the Titanic. Upstairs, the disquietingly Escheresque corridors – sometimes one has to turn through five or seven or more right angles to get from the lift (sc. elevator) to one's room, and this number varies – reflect the ghastly London Docklands venue of other sf events, including the 1997 World Fantasy Convention. Need I add that the hotel is situated on an ancient magical node? Or that, to Venables's exasperation, at least two people besides himself are constantly meddling with this gate between worlds?
'Phantasmacon' feels like a real convention, and the few in-jokes are unobtrusive. Only those in the know will detect, for example, the lovingly observed depiction of a hemidemisemiconscious Neil ('I'm not a morning person') Gaiman confronting or failing to confront breakfast at a Milford UK conference. The con ambience provides a logical enough background for derring-do in which wounded centaurs are smuggled to safety while fans cry 'What a marvellous costume!', sigils of ultimate foulness appear scrawled on hotel bedroom doors, the kitchens get ransacked for magical ingredients, and the placing of a geas on a black mage in the hotel lobby becomes, inadvertently, a warmly applauded public performance. Few authors would risk the large-scale set-piece involving sinister ensemble magic, flashing swords, rampant manifestations of a horrid Goddess, and Imperial beam weaponry – all in a crowded convention hall where the Guest of Honour is struggling to deliver his speech.
But Diana Wynne Jones not only carries all this off splendidly, but successfully shifts gears into high fantasy for a quest that begins in a besieged hotel bedroom and leads to remote, perilous realms. To avert a cruel and otherwise inevitable death, Venables and a few fellow-Magids invoke one of their order's 'deep secrets', concerning the road to Babylon.
We all know, in defiance of mere reason, that certain scraps and shreds of verse touch on deep secrets – that, to pick the most famous examples, Tom O'Bedlam's Song and Coleridge's 'Kublai Khan' and a few lines from Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale' have unclear but ineluctable connections with the numinous. Deep Secret considers a well-known rhyme in the same light:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your feet are speedy and light
You can get there by candle-light.
Other versions of the verse, as it's supposedly known in other worlds, are given – to cumulative effect – and reveal more about the difficult path, which is also the path of the old lyke-wake dirge, the corpse-chant. 'This ae nighte, this ae nighte ... Fire and fleet and candle-light ... To Whinny-muir thou comest at last ...' Suddenly the story is not comic at all; but it sings.
Some writers would probably kill for the trick of working this smooth transition from knockabout adventure to full flight – yes, and back again. How does Diana Wynne Jones do it? Well ... there are plenty more secrets to be enjoyably discovered in Deep Secret; this seems a good time to call a halt and echo that celebrated Algis Budrys dictum on a Panshin novel: 'Read the book. Stop asking silly questions.'