Robert Newman,
Merlin's Mistake
(Smith, 1985)

Having gotten over my King Arthur mania a few years ago, after reading so many Arthurian fantasies that I swore I wouldn't touch another one, I was a little hesitant about buying a book called Merlin's Mistake. I didn't have any very high expectations, but it turned out that I really liked it.

It's not really an Arthurian tale at all, and though Merlin does play a role in the premise, he's hardly the center focus of the book. Anyway, the enchanter accidentally gives the apprentice Tertius not all magical knowledge, but all future knowledge. Merlin then disappears with Nimue. Knowledge about nuclear reactors isn't particularly useful in the medieval ages ... although chemistry does come in handy later on. Tertius joins forces with Brian, a young, idealistic squire, and they go off on adventures -- Tertius continues his quest to find someone to teach him magic, Brian acquires the mission of rescuing a kingdom from the menace of an invincible and mysterious Black Knight.

This has all been done before, of course, but Robert Newman somehow makes it fresh and enjoyable all over again. They encounter everything from outlaws (sensible enough to steal from everyone and keep their loot, and yet not without honor) to a giant (who would rather not be disturbed, thank you very much), a very unstereotypical dragon, an anachronistic goddess, and the usual knights and princesses. But are even they exactly what they seem?

By turn serious and humorous, Merlin's Mistake reminds me just a bit of Lloyd Alexander, Patricia C. Wrede and T.H. White. Its messages about mercy and good judgment are never overstated and never get in the way of a good tale. I read it shortly after seeing A Knight's Tale, and they are a little similar -- but in Merlin's Mistake, there's a likable female protagonist! (There's a sequel, The Testing of Tertius, but it's out of print and I haven't read it.)

by Jennifer Mo
19 November 2005

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