Originally published as King of the World’s Edge, 1939
Camelot was gone and Arthur lay in the sleep of the forever undead. Only a small band of loyal men were left, guided now by the magical wisdom of Merlin. United, they braved uncharted seas toward the mysterious Lands of the West. With them they carried the Thirteen Magic Treasures of Britain and the power of Merlin’s Ring.
Ahead of them lay unknown lands that offered lush wonders and ecstasies beyond their dreams and savage creatures that drove them into horrors beyond any nightmare.
For Ventidius Varro, a Roman centurion who had given his service to Arthur, this was to be an odyssey of soul-stirring glory and heartbreaking discovery….an odyssey that would bring him the love of a beautiful woman and take from him his son Gwalchmai.
And before Gwalchmai, godson of Merlin, lay an even darker and more mysterious quest.
So to kick off Year 2 of Schlock Value I’m doing two things rather differently, but that’s only because both of these two things were weird and unintentional. I’m running with it, though, so no worries.
For one, this book, as you can probably tell, is fantasy. I haven’t reviewed any fantasy literature on here yet, with the exception of Penetrator novels, because on the whole I find fantasy really hard to read and often infuriating. It’s not that I have anything against the genre itself, mind you. My very favorite book is The Once and Future King and I’ve read The Lord of the Rings about a dozen times, plus Terry Pratchett is up near the top of my list of favorite authors. It’s just that when fantasy is good, it’s great, and when it’s bad, it makes me want to kill things.
The reason I picked it up in the first place is because it was sitting in the science fiction section of my used book store. Either it was miscatalogued or some customer just put it in the wrong place. It’s pretty obviously fantasy, but that’s why when I grabbed it I thought it was going to make for some absolutely ridiculous sci-fi. Science fiction with Merlin in it! C’mon, you know that’d be great.
The second thing about it is that this book is not one but two books in an omnibus. I didn’t learn that until I hit up Wikipedia to research the author. So what I’ve decided to do is save myself a little time this week by reading and reviewing the first book in the omnibus, King of the World’s Edge, and then doing the other half next week. Are we all on the same page? Good, let’s get this thing going.
The book kicks off in that wonderful thirties pulp fantasy kind of way by assuring is that everything about it is ABSOLUTELY TRUE. I think I’ve commented on this literary device before, but this one stands out because it was so incredibly direct and short. The prologue to this book was about a page long and consisted of “I’m an antiquarian and a guy brought this manuscript he found and here’s the translation.”
The manuscript, as it were, tells the story of Ventidius Varro, a Roman soldier from Britain. He considers himself a loyal subject of Rome, even though he’s never visited the Eternal City, because his grandfather and father were both soldiers helping to occupy the British Isles. Ventidius himself was never officially in the Roman Legions on the grounds that Rome pulled out of Britain before he was old enough to join up. This is the history lesson portion of the book.
Where it goes off the rails is when a certain general, whom we will call Arthur, decided that keeping Britain for Rome should be of paramount importance and thus rallies up the surviving soldiers and forms his own legions. He also establishes a Round Table and chivalry and knighthood and all that kind of stuff.
So yeah, King Arthur, former Roman soldier, does his thing.
The first bit of the book is essentially a retelling of elements of the Arthur stories, just with the names all mixed up. Some of the names are Romanized, others are Saxonized, and so forth until boredom.
The element of the Arthur stories most important to this narrative is, of course, Merlin. Merlin is referred to as Myrdhinn throughout this book because everything is slightly different. I shall insist on calling him Merlin for the purposes of this review because I took a course in Arthuriana in college and therefore my fingers are more likely to type that word quickly than otherwise.
So after Arthur falls in that way we all know (Mordred is actually called Myrdgethedh or something like that), Ventidius is concerned that Britain will fall to the Saxon, Angle, and Jute invaders as history would demand. It does, I guess, but not before Merlin tells Ventidius of mysterious lands to the far west where adventure await. They grab a boat, the rest of the soldiers, and some swords and set across the ocean.
Yup, this story turns out to be the adventures of Romans in America circa 400 AD.
Things actually get a lot less crazy than I had expected. First off, the Roman guys (along with some Saxon slaves), wander around Florida (Flyrdddndica) for a while, where they meet up with some Indians. They aren’t immediately killed by the Indians, and as such we get our standard-issue “learning each others’ languages” scene. Can’t we just cut those out? I think that’s probably the greatest advantage science fiction has as a genre. You meet some aliens, you turn on the Translator Matrix 1198-E, you get on with the freakin’ story. What’s fantasy got? Magic? Pbbt, probably not. Nobody ever uses magical language learning spells, even in D&D where you have the option. Why don’t you use it? Because when you take that spell or perk or trait or whatever it is in your edition, you’re giving up the option for some kind of murder magic like Samwyth’s Ice Grenade or Elron’s Paper Trail.
At one point there are fish monsters. I just want to point that out because it comes up again, and when it did I had forgotten about it. So yes, fish monsters “kill” a Saxon guy named Guthlak.
Most of the rest of the book concerns our guys travelling around ancient America and getting into trouble, whereupon Merlin helps them out.
Geography gets kind of fuzzy but somewhere or another we meet the villain of the piece, the Tlapallan, also called the Mia. I think they’re supposed to be the Mayans, so that’s what I’m going to call them. The Mayans are the bad guys. They have a great big empire and they capture and sacrifice members of other tribes, or else they enslave them. Standard-issue pulp fantasy monster civilization.
After some skirmishes with these guys, our Romans meet a former slave of the Mayans, a guy named Hiawatha.
Yes, that Hiawatha.
Hiawatha and his people have been oppressed by the Mayans for long enough, so he allies with Ventidius and Merlin in a quest to rid the continent of the Mayan Empire.
Man, this is actually pretty good, even if my scant knowledge of Native American history rebels against every word of it.
The plan, as hatched by Merlin, is basically the idea that unless the various tribes of the North American continent unite against the Mayans, they’ll never be able to stand against them. And so Merlin founds the Iroquois Confederacy, along with Hiawatha, and our guys are able to rest for a while.
Eventually, though, Merlin gets the itch to wander again and he takes Ventidius and some soldiers along with him. He’s looking for the Land of the Dead, which some sybil or another told him he would find in the Lands of the West. They look for a while and discover some of the weirder animals of the American continent (bison mostly) and eventually they give up on the grounds that this quest is stupid. They also give up because they found some more allies to help them fight against the Mayans.
Well, not really. They are, more or less, the progenitors of the Aztecs, but that’s okay, because they immediately call Merlin Quetzlcoatl like we totally didn’t see it coming. Merlin goes back to look after the Iroquois and Ventidius stays behind to whip the Aztecs into shape until the day when they can join forces and finally take the Mayan Empire down.
Ventidius meets a very nice lady and they have a son, Gwalchmai, who I believe is supposed to be the titular godson of Merlin and the protagonist of the next book.
Oh, and at some point Merlin makes the prophesy about how the Aztec Empire will be founded some years down the road when they find an island and a cactus and a snake and an eagle. Just so we know that all prophesies, everywhere, do in fact come from Merlin.
Time passes and our heroes join forces to gang up on the Mayans. About seventy-five pages of battle scenes go pretty well, and eventually the Mayans are conquered. Celebrations are cut short, though, when Guthlak and his fish people show up completely out of the blue. Apparently he didn’t die but instead became their king, as is often the case with fish people. I myself have been king of the fish people at least twice.
To celebrate the victory over the Mayans, the Aztecs put up a jai-alai court. Merlin and Guthlak make a bet, Merlin wins and therefore gets some wine. The wine is poisoned, Merlin says some things about how the prophesy actually meant he would die here, and then does. And the book pretty much ends.
Oh, there’s an epilogue, though, where our antiquarian friend from the beginning of the book asks some pointed questions about how long the Romans lasted and whatever because of Gwalchmai.
WILL WE EVER KNOW?
Well, yeah. Next week, unless I forget.
So, for fantasy, this actually wasn’t all that bad. It was deeply rooted in that Robert E. Howard-style pulp of the thirties, which I just plain adore. I’ll actually say, though, that in some ways I liked it more than Robert E. Howard’s stuff, at least in one particular way. Whereas people like Conan or Solomon Kane tend to be absurdly powerful figures, Ventidius was, at least most of the time, out of his element and trying by the skin of his teeth to survive. Merlin, of course, was crazy powerful, but he did his best not to use any of his sorcery because every time he did so it damned his soul to hell just a little bit more, because God has no concept of intention, apparently.
But setting it even more apart from Howard is the fact that the Indians, while powerful and barbaric and all oonga-boonga, they aren’t actually depicted as inhuman monsters. Sure, there’s blood sacrifice and scalping and stuff, but in a rather touching point at the end of the book, Ventidius has gone almost completely over the bend and commands the extermination of the entire Mayan people. Merlin talks him down, though, and gives Ventidius enough time to realize that these are people, with hopes and dreams and pain and remorse, so he spares the noncombatants. Touching, but not at all Roman.
Merlin himself is an interesting character. He’s more direct than somebody like Gandalf, and more often than not he just straight up casts some fireballs to save the day. But he’s also depicted as wise, so a lot of the things he does aren’t, in fact, magic. He just likes people to believe it’s magic. He knows the secret of Greek Fire, for instance, and uses it to blow down some Mayan fortifications. That’s the kind of wizard I tend to appreciate in this kind of book. All too often you get the wizard character who just won’t do wizard stuff of any kind. Either that or he’s so powerful and willing to use that power that we’re faced with the question of why any of the rest of the characters even bother to show up. Merlin struck a pretty good balance in this book, and I appreciate that.
So, all that being said, tune in next week for The Ship from Atlantis, part two of the Merlin’s Godson saga, and I hope the part that actually features, you know, Merlin’s Godson.