(published by Victor Gollancz, 1997)
Rupert Venables is the youngest of Earth’s Magids when he’s faced with two problems: his sponsor, Stan, dies, and thus Rupert has to find a replacement; and secondly, events in the Koryfonic Empire – not one of Rupert’s favourite places – seem about to herald the downfall of the empire. Magids are at work all over the universe maintaining the balance of magic, using their own talents to push the right people into doing the right things at the right time. Earth is currently one of the Naywards, or more sceptical, worlds and one of Rupert’s jobs is to try to push it back Ayewards. That’s not to say that there’s no magic on Earth – Rupert’s two brothers, Will and Simon, are also Magids, but now not stationed on Earth – but that most people don’t acknowledge its existence.
As part of his search for a new Magid, Rupert tries to contact all five of the possibles on the list Stan provides for him, but the only one he manages to find relatively easily (though she’s not easy to find) is Maree Mallory. Despite her being, on paper, the best choice, their meeting does not go well, with both of them disliking each other immensely. Annoyed, Rupert starts a bit of fateline entangling so as to bring his other candidates to a suitable place in England where he can assess their suitability. Whilst he’s doing this, an explosion in Iforion, the capital of the Koryfonic empire, kills the rather paranoid emperor Timos, not to mention nearly all of his court, and Rupert is needed by General Dakros, temporarily in charge of clearing up the mess, to help find the heir. This is not an easy task, since there are barely any records left to indicate who the heirs might be or where they might live.
The two plotlines converge nicely at a conference called PhantasmaCon, peopled with a strange cast of oddballs, eccentrics, and those who are just plain nasty, as well as centaurs, a disembodied presence who insists on playing Scarlatti tapes in Rupert’s car, and other Magids. Rupert eventually manages to find Stan’s replacement and help start a new regime in the Empire, but not without a lot of weirdness, shenanigans and outright violence and destruction.
Jones as usual does her world-building with utter plausibility, using the infinite number of worlds idea as previously explored in her works. Earth is recognisably Earth, however, and anyone who knows Bristol will recognise its streets as Rupert is driving round and round it in search of Maree. The story’s told in the first person, primarily from Rupert’s point of view but also from Maree’s: the last part from Maree’s cousin, Nick’s (he also part narrates the sort-of-sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy).
As well as the straightforward problems Rupert has to solve, later in collaboration with others, Jones defines her characters well: Maree in particular comes across very vividly, both through her own voice and seen by Rupert, though most of the major characters are well drawn. One of the reasons the book works is that Rupert is a junior Magid and thus not very experienced: things go wrong, and although he can do magic to solve problems or put right things which have gone wrong, he doesn’t always do this correctly, and needs help. This keeps him from being the “prat” which Maree immediately christens him.
I also like the relationship between Maree and Nick, which is clearly close and affectionate but also realistic, and the way they interact with Nick’s parents, the awful Janine (who has a penchant for wearing sweaters decorated with embroidery: pink satin roses which look like “man-eating sugar mice”, or blobs of colour which look like someone has broken an egg over her shoulder) and Ted Mallory, a surprisingly prosaic writer of demonic fantasy. Jones has quite a bit of fun with Mallory’s pronouncements about writing – how it’s done, and that everything can be reduced to money, and a formula – when magic is clearly under his nose.
There is a good bit of humour in the novel, as well as genuine tension and emotion; part of the ending (the solution to the problems in the Koryfonic Empire) is a bit deus ex machina, as is usual for Jones, but it’s set up rather nicely. It had been a very long time since I’d last read the book (it may have been back in 1998, since I found a train ticket within the pages which dates from that year), so I was suspecting Rupert’s neighbour Andrew, who keeps turning up at exactly the wrong moment, of being rather more villainous than Rupert thought him. It’s all rather more fun than I remembered, too – fifteen years on, Rupert doesn’t sound quite so boring, and I appreciated Maree’s strong will and her affection for Nick a lot more.
It’s unusually a novel for adults rather than children, though Jones doesn’t distinguish too much between her audiences: there’s maybe a bit more violence and references to sex than would appear in her children’s novels, and her main characters are older (though Maree is only twenty and Rupert twenty-six). The inventiveness and lightness of touch is still present, and a lot goes on. In short, highly recommended.