MERLIN’S GODSON by H. Warner Munn (cover by Darrell Sweet, all rights to image remain with current holder) doesn’t fit the rules for this blog post series, which are to read something written in the past year. However of the two books I read this month, I didn’t care for Behind the Moon while Twenty Days of Turin, much as I liked it, didn’t give me any insights I can blog about. So, I figured this book will have to do.
This is a collection combining Munn’s 1930s novel King of the World’s Edge with a sequel, Ship From Atlantis, that he wrote in 1967 after the first book came out in paperback. In Part One, Ventidius, one of the Roman centurions serving Camelot (going with the theory Arthur was a Romanized Celt) and Myrddin (Merlin) survive the fall of Camelot, but realize Britain is obviously sliding into a Dark Age. With some of the other survivors they cross the sea to the New World, which Ventidius hopes to conquer for Rome. The continent is under the oppressive thrall of the Mians (Mayans), the culture that built the mounds scattered across North America; can Ventidius and his magic mentor rally the Native against the oppressor? In Part Two, Ventidius’ son Gwalchmai, tutored in the magic arts by Merlin, sails to Europe to bring word of the new continent to Rome. When he’s stranded in the Sargasso Sea he encounters a swan-shaped metal ship from ancient Atlantis, crewed by Corenice, a woman whose mind is trapped in a metal body. She convinces Gwalchmai to divert from his mission and help her destroy a debased Atlantean colony of killers (the mission would eventually wrap up in the epic novel Merlin’s Ring).
WHAT I LEARNED:
Good mixing and matching is awesome. Here we have Arthurian myth, North American legend and then Atlantis all combined. That greatly appeals to me. It’s a good example of taking stuff out of context and making it work. Oh, and Ventidius’ greatest friend among the Native Americans is apparently Hiawatha (I presume Hayonwatha is meant to be the prototype).
Aesthetics of magic matter more than magic systems. I know that’s not a universal opinion, but if the magic looks good and works, I don’t really need an explanation. And I think here it works. Most of Merlin’s stuff is alchemical/lost science secrets of the agents; he’s also capable of powerful outright magic, but it’s soul-corrupting so he avoids it. What’s more important for me is that it feels right — dramatic, effective, consistent.
Characterization matters. One of the book’s weakness is that characterization is in short supply. The long war against the Mayans isn’t inherently gripping, in between the magic, and Ventidius doesn’t have much of a character arc. He starts as a good man, becomes ruthless, then realizes he’s close to going to the dark side and softens. But the character bits are squeezed into one chapter; the rest of the time he’s just a tough, stalwart leader leading leaderly. There’s no character conflict and so the adventure really bogs down.
As I’ve said before, some tropes just don’t age well. The subtext of the book is uncomfortably racist, in a way that wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in the 1930s, or even in the 1960s. Ventidius is very much the White Savior — without him, the Native Tribes are just ignorant brutal savages, unable to withstand the Mians. He teaches them strategy. He teaches them archery. The very term “brave” for a warrior comes from Ventidius naming his best warriors “Valiants.” And while it’s understandable Ventidius wants Rome to colonize North America, Munn clearly takes it as a given this would be a good thing — can’t leave those native savages governing themselves! So definitely not for everyone.
Despite its flaws I liked it. But IIRC, Merlin’s Ring was better — I’ll find out in a month or two.