By Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: TOR Books
Back in 2016, I started a re-read of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, but did not get at all far. All I managed was Hexwood, Fire and Hemlock and The Time of the Ghost. I think it’s time I admit that I can’t do reading challenges if it involves listing specific titles ahead of time. I can only read what I want to read right then and there. I guess that’s fine.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened to want to re-read Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones. This is a book that has been one of my Top Ten favourites by Diana Wynne Jones for the longest time, and a year or two ago, I bought a Tor Books first edition to replace my ratty, abridged Starscape paperback.
When I say ‘abridged’, I really mean censored. This was my first read of the ‘original’ Deep Secret and it’s only now that I know what got cut.
Thing is, Deep Secret is one of DWJ’s adult fantasies so I have no idea why the need for censorship. Most of what is snipped is to do with sex, but none of it is explicit. ‘Orgy’ is removed twice, but they are just mentions of such an event, not detailed descriptions people having wild sex. There is also the deletion of a description of someone’s face after it’s been shot off, but it’s a one liner and hardly dripping with blood and gore.
There is one sentence that made me sit up and gag a little, but more about that later.
The story is narrated alternately by Rupert Venables and Maree Mallory. The former is a magid, a kind of magical guardian of the multiverse which Earth is a part of. One of the Rupert’s responsibilities is the Koryfonic Empire and, early in the book, he is tasked with locating the heir to the Emperor when the latter is assassinated.
Rupert is more than a little put out by having to do this as he is dealing with the death of friend and fellow-magid. He also has to find a suitable replacement for him (there is always a fixed number of magids) and it turns out that Maree Mallory, a seemingly subpar, 20-year-old veterinary undergrad, is one of the candidates, and probably the most suitable one too. However, it’s a case of immediate mutual hate and exasperation for the pair. Even trying to meet Maree causes endless problems for Rupert and he all but abandons any intention of even considering her for the post.
Nevertheless, he is obliged to find that replacement and, with the help of magic, arranges for all the candidates to gather in one place: a town built on a powerful magical node. A fantasy and sci-fi convention is being held at a hotel there, and everyone is magically (although also plausibly) pulled to the place so that Rupert can look them over.
I’m not sure if I’m the only one, but when I first read the book, I did not expect Maree and Rupert to end up together. I guess I should have known, but in the first place I don’t like the enemies-to-lovers trope, and also, unlike in romance novels, Rupert and Maree aren’t struggling with simultaneous hatred and sexual attraction, so maybe I was thrown by that, or maybe I’m just dense. Anyway, it’s pretty much just deep dislike between them and I could relate as I find both characters annoying as hell. At the same time, I like them when they aren’t being pains in the butt, so when they do get together, it isn’t a stretch. I mean, Rupert and Maree aren’t selfish or mean people, although Maree is rather fat phobic, just like most people are. When DWJ’s characters make unkind observations about fatness, it feels like DWJ projecting her own feelings onto them — it’s not nice, but it’s expected just like how we expect most people we know to be negative about fatness. Anyhow, we find out that Maree has been magicked and the worst of her (though not the fat phobia) is a result of it. And later, Rupert realises that the reason why he’s all antsy about Maree is because he’s attracted to her — yeah, I think that’s dodgy as hell, but it’s quite common for emotionally immature people to react negatively to unfamiliar situations and unexpected feelings, and to act like dickheads when they are not normally dickheads.
Oh, one thing I noticed on this reading is that DWJ makes a distinction between being plump and being fat. Plumpness is seen as attractive and sexy, but fatness is gross. There’s even a scene in which Maree’s cousin reacts with deep embarrassment and disgust to a fat person: ‘I saw Nick look hastily away,’ narrates Maree. ‘I think he thought she was some kind of cripple.’ I don’t know if that would have made the final cut if the book were published now! That sentence nauseates me too, but the one I mentioned earlier, the one that made me gag when I read it, happens at a point in the story when Maree is out cold, naked, and practically dead. Rupert has to lift her in his arms and says that it’s ‘one of the most sexual experiences’ he’s ever had. Note: They are not in bed together or not in any kind of even remotely sexual situation. DWJ just leaves that sentence there, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing that Rupert doesn’t elaborate on this
kinky observation. Hmm … no, actually I think it’s definitely a bad thing because not talking about this strange remark makes me read all kinds of things into it. Then again, a friend who just read the book didn’t even notice it.
I know Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock are two DWJ books that you need to read a few times to fully understand, but I’m not sure if it’s the case for Deep Secret. The problem is I miss a lot during my first couple of reads as I tend to skim. (I guess you could say I’ve read only about fifty percent of any book if I’ve read it just once!) This time round, I listened to the audio book and read the TOR edition, so it was a really thorough read and one thing that escaped me totally before was that the dicey bit near the end is solved too suddenly and too conveniently. It’s literally a deus ex machina moment and I think DWJ probably had a good laugh over it, but I wasn’t too impressed.
I’m still undecided, but I’m not sure that I’m keeping Deep Secret on my favourite DWJs list. There’s a lot I still like about it, but, on the whole, this is one book which deep reading did not improve.