Is Our Writer’s Learning? Merlin’s Ring (#SFWApro)

Once again, none of the books I’ve read recently with an eye to Is Our Writer’s Learning worked for one reason or another. So once again I’m bending the rules to include an older book, H. Warner’s Munn’s 1970s fantasy Merlin’s Ring, with that striking cover by Gervasio Gallardo (all rights remain with current holder). If you think it jumbles a lot of elements together, well there’s a reason for that. Incidentally this is the last of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy books I’ve been reading over the last few years.

The story: This sequel to Merlin’s Godson has the eponymous Gwalchmai thawed out of the suspended animation by his Atlantean lover, Corenice (he’s immortal from an elixir, she’s immortal by being a disembodied spirit). They face the dual challenges of a)being together even though she can only take physical form by possessing other bodies and b)fulfilling Gwalchmai’s mission to tell Rome, or some suitable Christian monarch, of the existence of North America so they can colonize it. On top of which, Merlin’s spirit keeps adding other missions, such as delivering Excalibur to Arthur’s crypt for the day the king reawakens. The quests take Gwalchmai and Corenice from Iceland to Stonehenge to Faerie, east to China and Japan, then back to France to ally with Joan of Arc.


What’s unquestioned in one era looks real bad in another. Just as Merlin’s Godson suffered from the white savior trope, here we have an unquestioned embrace of colonialism. Even after learning that Rome has fallen to barbarians, the possibility of not encouraging Europe to colonize America never occurs to Gwalchmai (or, presumably Munn). In one part of the novel, Gwalchmai is involved in China’s plans to invade Japan. He comes to realize that the invasion is wrong and switches sides. There’s never a similar consideration regarding North America. Even when this came out, there was enough criticism of Columbus, it wouldn’t have been that radical to consider it.

On the other hand, I do like the couple’s repeated decisions to send various oppressed people (pacifist monks, Welsh refugees) west to find refuge beyond the reach of their enemies. Yes, it’s still colonialism, but the escape-from-oppression aspect makes it palatable at least to me.

Details are cool, even if not everyone gets them. One of the things I’ve noticed writing historical fantasy is that some details, even if I enjoy including them, probably won’t mean anything to someone who hasn’t read as much history. But if they’re good details, I think they’re worth including anyway. Apparently Munn does too as he throws in a lot of them. Most notably (for me) he has a reference to Prince Madoc, the Welsh nobleman who supposedly founded a colony on the Gulf of Mexico (this was a key point in Excalibur). I’m guessing most readers won’t guess this element has any basis in quasi-history, but it doesn’t hurt the book and it adds something for anyone who spots it.

Orson Scott Card was right. I’ve mentioned several times before that I’m a fan of Orson Scott Card’s story-types approach: Whether you start your story as a mystery, a character study, a thriller, etc., that’s how it should end. Merlin’s Ring is a good example.

This novel sprawls all over the map. It spans 600 years, multiple location and follows lots of side alleys: Joan’s fight against England, the fate of Roland’s sword, a quest for Prester John. At times it spirals out of control — I could probably have done with less of Joan, for instance. But what keeps it coherent is that the heart of the book is Gwalchmai/Corenice. The book opens with her reviving him and ends with them united in spirit forever. In between, their love is what keeps the story going, no matter where the plot leads us. It’s probably the strongest core Munn could have chosen.

We’ll see if next month I can find something more recent.


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