Merlin’s Godson by H. Warner Munn
Del Rey Books, 1976
Price I paid: 50¢
Originally published as The Ship from Atlantis, 1967
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.
And so we’ve arrived at the thrilling conclusion of the Merlin’s Godson saga.
When I first realized that this book was an omnibus edition comprising two books, I also realized the distance in time between when these books were written. The first half of the omnibus dates to the thirties while the second is from the sixties. What this led me to consider is just how much influence I’d see from The Lord of the Rings once I got to the second part. An interesting analysis, I thought, of fantasy from the same author that takes place in the same world but written before and after Tolkien hit the fantasy genre so hard that everything just kind of puddles around it. Even without conscious effort, I think that pretty much all post-LotR fantasy is going to owe something to Tolkien in some way or another, and this would be an interesting way to check that belief.
Hoo boy was I surprised, then. Sure, you can see The Master at work a little bit. The Ship from Atlantis has come a long way from its predecessor. You can tell that both the author and the genre have come quite a ways in the thirty years between these books. What I was not expecting, however, was this.
This book got nuts.
It picks up right around the time that the previous book left off. Ventidius Varro is ruling high and mighty in the Imperial Aztec States of Amerirome, and the time has come that information about this state of affairs needs to travel back across the Atlantic to inform the Emperor of Rome about what’s been going on in this unknown land. Of course, by this point the Empire had fallen and the only Emperor was in Constantinople, but there you go. Ventidius couldn’t know that, and in fact it was commented upon in the prologue of the previous novel.
Ventidius sends his only son across the sea with this mission, presumably because it was so important that his only son could be trusted to handle it. Why is that the case so often? If I only had one son, I probably wouldn’t trust him with anything of any importance, mainly on the grounds that he probably inherited his competence from me, but also because preventing my genetic progeny from being eaten by fish people is of some importance.
So Gwalchmai, the kid hero of this book, is attacked and almost eaten by fish people. Remember the fish people? They’re still around. Actually they were supposed to have been wiped out in the years between these books, but apparently it didn’t take. It’s barely even a couple of pages when the ship gets attacked and everybody except Gwalchmai dies. He manages to escape by digging into Merlin’s box of tricks, with which he has been entrusted, and just straight up killing everybody. He dumps the skeletons overboard at what is to become Key West along with, unknowingly, the message he was supposed to be delivering which then gets found kicking off the meta-narrative of the first book.
So, with all mysteries explained, the book ends.
Wait, no, there’s still the mystery of why there are ninety pages left.
Gwalchmai drifts around a bit until he hits the Sargasso Sea. He’s attacked by a sea monster, but some…thing shows up and saves him. It’s a metal ship, shaped like a swan, and it looks like there’s no way in until he yells at it and it lets him in.
We enter the wacky science fiction portion of the book now.
Okay, so the ship is from Atlantis, and it’s being helmed by a robot woman. Well, sort of a robot woman. Atlanteans had in their possession the secrets of orichalcum, the wondrous metal that is also alive and can be anything you need it to be. She’s made of that, but she wasn’t always a robot. She used to be just a regular girl who psychically transferred her consciousness into the robot that incidentally was modeled after her.
Why did she do that? Well, that’s answered too. At great length.
Fully half of this book is just relating the events surrounding the fall of Atlantis.
About half of that bit of narrative is the standard AND MAN GREW PROUD kind of thing, but another part of it involves aliens. Particularly an alien warlord who came from Venus to destroy Earth for the fun of it. He may also have been enslaving people. Either way, the only way the Atlanteans know to fight back is to open up the bowels of the Earth so that the dark evil that lives down there can come out, infest people, and help them fight back. And that’s what they do.
The Atlanteans send all of these infested people to an island, because at heart they are peaceful. The island is protected by a force field.
It comes up again.
Time went past and eventually another set of problems hit Atlantis, and this was during the life of Corenice, the lady who is now a robot. In an effort to help her survive, her father helped her transfer her consciousness into the robot but then died before he was able to transfer himself into another robot. She set off on her swan ship with laser eyes and has been floating around for some thousands of years.
Now that we’re caught up, the book is half over.
This island I mentioned still exists down to the present day of the book, and Corenice feels the need to find it. Gwalchmai agrees to help because, despite being a robot, she is just daaaaaaaamn.
Sexy robot bitches: inciting protagonists to action since 1921.
The island itself contains the bad guys and some good guys. I’m not going to go into much more depth than that because the book didn’t really. Gwalchmai and Corenice start hanging out with the good guys (echoing some of the adventures his dad did in the first book) and learn about the bad guys. Finally they set out to deal with the bad guys, who incidentally are called the Nor-um-Bega, and have some adventure.
The Nor-um-Bega are, unlike the Mayans from the previous book, just stupid and evil and evil and stupid. They have slaves (which the descendant of a Roman wouldn’t find offensive, but still) and the slaves are digging a hole. It’s one heck of a deep hole, though. They need a lot of slaves. The goal with the hole, the hole-goal as it were, is to penetrate (dear Merlin my mind is filthy) deep enough that the evil things that found the Venusians will come back and give the Nor-um-Bega unlimited power with absolutely no repercussions apparently.
So with the help of some of the good guys (the Abenaki), Gwalchmai and Corenice save the day. The Abenaki didn’t help altogether too much, because G&C had laser guns, but it’s the thought that counts.
Corenice then turns her swan ship’s eye lasers on the shield around the island (which I had forgotten about existing entirely), disintegrates it, and then the island sinks into the ocean.
Then there is a tearful scene where Corenice says that despite being made of magical alchemy sentient metal, she’s dying. Seriously? She’s been around for thousands of years doing astral projection and floating in the ocean and now that she finds a dude who wants to sex her metal body until it glows blue she just up and decides to die. Women. I swear to god.
She drops Gwalchmai off somewhere cold and tells him to continue his adventure and one day they’ll meet again. Of course.
Okay, so what was up with all that? It’s like the series went from stock 30s pulp to stock 60s abject wackiness. That sort of Atlantis story where they had harness both high technology and magic that was so popular in the sixties, but it also had aliens but only in the backstory. Compared to King of the World’s Edge, this book was eminently less good, but actually more entertaining in a thoroughly ridiculous way.
Where it really lacked in comparison to the predecessor was in characterization, really. Gwalchmai and Corenice have little to no personality, which at least in the case of Corenice I can understand because she’s an Atlantean robot chick. Plus she doesn’t need personality cause she got dat ass.
Think I’m making a big deal about how attractive this robot was? The book makes a much bigger deal.
But again we have a protagonist who meets somebody so much more powerful and smart and ancient and wise than he is so he doesn’t actually have to do anything.
Really the best part of the book was the first half that was just a recounting of Atlantean history. I bet most people would have been turned off by that part, but really I was curious as to what kind of Atlantis was being built up. It wasn’t exactly an original one except for the Venusians, but there you go.
And what of The Lord of the Rings? Did it have as much influence as I thought it would? I’d say if the influence is there, it’s pretty subtle. This was not a direct ripoff of Tolkien, and I have to give it credit for that. Sure, there’s a ring. Gwalchmai has Merlin’s Ring (which is the title of the third book in the series, which I have yet to find) and the ring gets hot and glows when danger is around. The Venerean invader warlord sort of reminded me of Sauron, but only because he landed in the Gobi Desert and set up shop there. Actually it was the Gobi Sea first, then he turned it into a desert, so that’s actually pretty cool.
I said last week that I found this omnibus in the science fiction section where it clearly did not belong. I’m actually revising that statement now that I’ve read the second book. It had a lot of science fiction elements in it, but they all had that sort of fantasy sheen to them that interested me. Lots of people have had lots of arguments about where the line between these genres lie and I’m not going to rehash them here, but I will say the book made me stop and consider what side it lies on. There’s magic and there’s high technology. But the technology is basically magical, and not like Star Wars technology. I mean these robots are very literally made of alchemical metal. But the alchemical metal is powered by gears and stuff.
Is this some kind of precursor to steampunk? I know there are a lot of differences, but I’m seeing one or two really vague and broad similarities there. Hmm, worth considering.