Mad Merlin by J. Robert King is yet another take on the King Arthur legends of early Britain. Sometimes it seems that Arthurian pastiches are a dime a dozen, but King does a wonderful job of mixing the legends with other mythologies, creating a taut tale of magic, intrigue, violence and royalty that will take your breath away.
The time of the Romans is over. The Christian religion has made serious inroads into other pantheons, affecting peopleís beliefs. Ulfius, formerly servant of the Romans and now Uther Pendragonís man, is sent on a mission to find mad Merlin. Uther wants Merlin to help him take a castle that he has under siege, kill the lord and take the woman for himself. But when Merlin is finally found, he sees that nothing but doom awaits if he does this. So he devises a plan so that Uther may take the form of the lord of the castle and sneak in to lay with his love once again.
This act leads to an ever-broadening destiny, as it produces a child, Arthur. Merlin is tasked to raise Arthur, and in his madness he stumbles upon a family who takes them in and shelters Arthur as if heís their own son. Arthur has a great future to fulfill, and Merlin must guide him. He must make sure that Arthur receives Excalibur, the god-killing sword, in order to achieve dominion over Britain. He must make sure that Arthur is wed to a woman of the fey, Guinevere, a creature of the land. Together they must remain, though chaste they must be. If they ever consummate their relationship, then Britannia is doomed.
But evil forces surround the newly created Camelot. The Saxon gods will not go away quietly. Wotan will not be denied, though he fears Excalibur. The devilish trickster Loki wreaks havoc with his wily games and subterfuge, and a Saxon army is coming to defeat Arthur and create a Saxon land free of the Christ and all his minions. Together, Merlin and Arthur must stop them, or Camelot will surely fall.
Books based on the Arthur legends can be predictable, and in a sense this one isnít any different. However, King throws so many interesting side elements into the mix that the reader is constantly wondering whatís going to come next. He has created in Mad Merlin an interesting character you want to read about. Not only is he destined to aid Arthur in his quest, but through Arthur he will come to know his own mind. He is truly mad at the beginning of the book, and it is only through his actions and his time with Arthur that he slowly becomes aware of who and what he is. What is his relation to Excalibur? What is the source of his power? As the book goes on, you find out more and more, and the story never lets you go. Iím not going to reveal Merlinís secret, but it just adds another intriguing layer to an already interesting character.
The side elements are the flavoring for the Arthurian myths, and they make the book a great read. King throws in the Roman pantheon of gods, the Norse gods, the land of the fey (fairies, pixies, nayads, and many other mystical creatures) and tells a tale not just of personal destiny (in the case of King Arthur) but also of religious destiny. The war is not just between men, but between gods. There are a lot of Christian images that will infringe on the other pantheons if they donít fight back. Christ himself is not portrayed in any way, but the Christian mythos is portrayed as an overwhelming force that will wipe out anything that stands in its path.
I liked how this book moves beyond the typical Arthurian legends, even as it rewrites them. All of the main elements are there: Merlin, Guinevere, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake (though sheís called something different in this one), Camelot, and the Round Table. Lancelot doesnít show up until the next book, though. Even the origins of Morgan Le Fay and Arthurís son Mordred are detailed, probably in much the same way as the legends go, though the details surrounding these events are different. Thereís even the act of Arthur removing the sword from the stone, though the circumstances are very different, and it even becomes a bad thing that he does it when he does. This impulsive mistake drives the action for the rest of the book, and adds an interesting element to the mix.
The language and the prose King uses are magnificent. It took me forever to read this book (and the next one), and I thought it was because of the mood I was in. But Iím reading another, lighter book now, and Iím breezing through it. Looking back on this book, I realize that itís the beauty of the imagery and description that kept me going so slowly. King really knows how to tell a story. When the battles rage, youíre right there with blood flowing, heads being caved in and swords finding their way into the seams of plate mail armor. The festive and romantic times are also well told. At times King gets a bit excessive with the description, but itís so beautiful (or chilling, depending on what is happening) that you donít notice. You just notice that you havenít moved very far into the book.
There is one strange thing about Mad Merlin, however. It feels like itís two separate books combined into one. Thereís no hint that this is true, and books are divided into ďBooks 1 and 2Ē quite often. However, the second book begins with a bunch of description of the previous events, a recap of sorts, that isnít really needed considering the events in question happened just a few pages ago. Itís almost like the second book was supposed to be published separately (or it was published without any indication in this book of this fact). I found it distracting, but thankfully that only lasted until I got into the second book. It was quickly gone again.
A few other minor problems mar what would otherwise be a marvelous book, both having to do with the ending. The final battle drags on a little too long, and the sequence with Loki in the land of the Saxon gods, while entertaining at times, seems useless. Lokiís exploits have a lot to do with Excalibur, so they are important to the story, but the writing of these events just makes them feel extraneous. Itís the only place where the writing fails, and it makes the final sequence more of a chore to get through than it should be. This, combined with the seemingly never-ending final battle, makes for a dull thud of an ending.
All in all, though, Mad Merlin is a great King Arthur book. I picked it up on a whim, and Iím glad I did. What a marvelous mixture of everything. You think you know King Arthur? Think again. Then read this book, and its sequel. Youíll be glad you did.