Ian McDowell,
Merlin's Gift
(Avon, 1997)

Merlin's Gift begins with a fratricide. It's rather disappointing, since Gawain was the only character from the previous book, Mordred's Curse, I really liked.

Of course, Gawain doesn't really get killed by his half-brother Mordred on page one. It's a rather blatant revelation (it's spelled out too clearly to be considered a foreshadowing or hint) of what's to come at the book's conclusion. That's a questionable plot device, since it rather eliminates any chance of suspense.

Sure, we all know generally how the Arthurian legend ends. In fact, author Ian McDowell counts on that fact, since Mordred, as the book's narrator, can hardly describe for us the events of the final battle between his army and Arthur's. But Gawain isn't killed by Mordred in most versions of the story, so why McDowell decided to tip us off at the very beginning is beyond me. Of course, he did the exact same thing in Mordred's Curse, revealing at the beginning that Guinevere would have an ongoing affair with Mordred (instead of the usual culprit, Lancelot, who doesn't exist in this pair of books).

That said, Merlin's Gift is in many ways superior to Mordred's Curse, largely because the characters are more likeable. Mordred himself is less bitter about life. Although he's still fairly amoral, he manages to work up some general affection for some of the people around him, particularly Gawain, his lover Gwen, her half-sister Nimue, and even his long-hated father Arthur. Arthur, too, has improved, losing his holier-than-thou attitude and accepting the flaws of people around him. Still, we never -- in either book -- get to see Arthur as the hero we know he must have been.

Merlin's Gift is every bit as rude and coarse as its predecessor, with more profanity, pedophilia and references to various bodily functions than some readers might be comfortable with. While certainly not appropriate for young readers, it is still worth reading by adult Arthurian fans who'd like to read a new angle on the old tale.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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