Pretty slow burn in this for the first two-thirds of the book, but it just makes the pace of the last third all that more gripping. It also really works artistically/dramatically: the reader is waiting with Merlin and Arthur for things to really kick off, and when *that* day comes, we’re thrown into the melee along with them too. It’s not a common device of authors in the fantasy genre – that of patient expectation – but Stewart savours it. “Don’t worry readers,” she says along with Merlin to his young charge, “there really is plenty to come. There’s no need to hurry, just enjoy this calm – it won’t come again, and you’ll learn to miss it.” She’s done such a wonderful job of fleshing out the myth, running imaginatively with, “What would Merlin have done in those years while waiting for Arthur to come of age?” Someone else could come up with an equally satisfying alternative (which would probably not include him slaying six dragons a week, making out with princesses, wallowing in tortured teen angst, or any of a number of hackneyed shortcuts to superficial gratification), Stewart could probably have come up with others herself, but this is very satisfying.
She’s generally not as able an episodic writer as some – I didn’t laugh with the wit, or recoil in visceral battle scenes, or get stung with incisive dialogue. The interactions between Merlin and the boy Arthur are charming and plausible, but they more assume the intimacy than create it. That being said, she’s completely capable, and I’m comparing her to some of the best, like Banks or King (and I did find the revelation scene with Arthur and the confrontation with Morgause both rose to be potent and affecting). But I would take solid, professional writing within a thoroughly engaging and consistent structure over a barrage of attention grabbing climactic incidents that eventually (or even soon) become contradictory, senseless, incoherent or random.
(One little) Spoiler:
Where Stewart really soars is in evoking and sustaining the mythic quality – much as Le Guin does with her wizard, and while his powers are substantially less, Stewart’s Merlin has a world more in common with Le Guin’s Ged than Rowling’s Harry in terms of gravitas (interesting that these are all female authors, and that two of them have created some of my favourite enchanters). In one way her characters are a bit 2D – they’re generally not complex, and apart, perhaps, from Cador, never surprise you, and could be summed up without doing them injustice in a word or two (dependable, ardent, scheming, courageous…). But in another they’re legendary, archetypical … pure – the book is soaked in destiny (how not? It’s centred on well known events from a millennia old story) – and narrated through the eyes of a prophet, who is also looking back over his life. This is no more clear than in Arthur: everybody keeps saying he’s made to be a king, and somehow the inevitability does not merely mean cliché. It’s buying, with total relish, into the royal myth – the whole deal with Tintagel was that it was creating someone born to be king. Merlin (even less so Uther) doesn’t need to build a relationship with him (although that would be a nice alternative for a good enough author) – Arthur unconsciously recognises him at a blood/family/nobility level. Stewart deftly brings home her theme: he will be, should be, must be, king. Utterly offensive in reality – particularly in the abandoned joy in warfare (‘born to lead men into battle’ sounds wonderfully stirring, but translates as a lover of atrocity), but great fun in fantasy.
(Reread) June 2015