Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Merlin the Sorcerer

by William P. Burch

"I wanted to write a book that was historically accurate and answered the question, 'Are Merlin, King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone myths real?'"

So says William Burch, the author of Merlin the Sorcerer, the first book in the Battle of Dragons series, in a press release. To attempt to do this using fiction seems like a strange choice, as does the decision to use that most unscientific of sf devices, time travel.

Dr Merlin Lakin is an archaeologist searching for an explanation for the disappearance, in around 850 AD, of the leaders of the Mayan people. He discovers some ancient Mayan ruins deep in the jungle of Guatemala. Nothing unusual about that, but these ruins are waterlogged and carefully overgrown. When his team of archeologists and divers explore it they find that the structure is unstable, but they also find a well-preserved book detailing how to make a time machine.

In the face of some consternation, because the book was initially half-inched from the Guatemalans, Dr Merlin is put in charge of a project to build a time travel device. It involves a rare plant, nanotechnology, wormholes, and no semblance of any realistic science. This is the Star Trek school of technology.

Along for the ride are an untrustworthy army officer called Quetzal Coatl and Merlin's freedom-fighting friend, Chac. Quetzal and Chac dislike each other intensely. Dr Vivian Weatherall, a dazzling young scientist fresh from CERN, is brought in to help them build it. To point out the obvious here, there are a lot of modern characters named after legendary figures. There's also a Lieutantant Lance Wilfred, for instance. These names really give the game away about the kind of roles many of the characters will be playing.

Once up and running with the time travel devices, the team start to make journeys into the past. Merlin travels in time like other people commute, without much thought for the consequences or potential paradoxes. When they move to England to explore the Arthurian past he has few scruples about getting involved rather than merely observing. This is where the whole premise of the book falls down. The truth of the Arthurian legends surely had nothing to do with time travelers. The author incorporates the historically probable Arthur, a leader uniting the Britons against the Saxon invaders, with familiar elements such as the Uther and Ygerna story and the sword in the stone. But although William Burch sticks to the script in many ways, it misses the point.

What the author hasn't included is any underlying theme or mystery. All supernatural elements have been explained away, and this is not the myth as a metaphor for something else. Merlin seems to be preoccupied with following the established story without really examining why he is doing this. He's a character with very little inner life, and we read little about his more sophisticated emotions and motivations. His relationship with Vivian is barely credible, she blows hot and cold for the most trivial of reasons, yet she's a beautiful and successful woman attracted to a man who is more often than not mistaken for a beggar. Why? The author doesn't appear to have a good grasp of human nature, so that many encounters have a false ring to them. An example is when Bill Barnes gives Merlin everything he asks for and funding for his project to boot, after Merlin has deceived him and given the most pathetic of justifications for it. Most rational people would have sent him packing, friend or not.

In Merlin the Sorcerer the ancient Britons always seem to be battling, feasting, and being waved at by cheering crowds. It's technicolor history at a gallop. Unfortunately the writing is rather poor, with stodgy prose that often reads like a first draft and is difficult going at times. But the worst crime of this novel is its shallowness, and this is one take on the Arthurian legend that fails to work the magic.

Book Details

Year: 2004

Categories: Books

  Science fiction
    Male Protagonist  

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1 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson