Merlin’s Bones by Fred Saberhagen fantasy book reviewsMerlin’s Bones by Fred Saberhagen fantasy book reviewsMerlin’s Bones by Fred Saberhagen

We raided the used bookstore the other day and this was one of my prizes; as sometimes happens when I visit the used bookstore and pick up a book by an author whose name I consider a guarantee of quality, I discovered when I got home that I had actually read Merlin’s Bones before — perhaps fifteen years ago, in this case. It took about three chapters to be sure, by which time I was merrily embarked and enjoying the story, so I didn’t mind. I did have, however, a small uneasiness — I recalled having been unimpressed with my previous read, though I didn’t remember why.

The story is set in two times: the first is medieval England, where a boy named Amby and his troupe of traveling players are attempting to escape the attentions of a warlord who their (the troupe’s) leader insulted on-stage and find themselves in a very strange castle which, as it turns out, was built over the bones of the magician Merlin. The second is near-future and follows Elaine, a physicist working in a high-security facility, who is applying the finishing touches on a device which will allow direct observation of the past. She gets a series of very unwelcome visitors who want to use her device to find Merlin’s bones themselves. The two stories gradually intertwine, drawing in a number of figures from Arthurian legend, of course, but all of whom have conflicting schemes to leverage the power of Merlin’s bones to their own advantage.

The book begins well, and I thought at first that my early lack of enthusiasm for it might have been due to unfamiliarity with the Arthurian legend, but as I pressed on I began to remember what it was that had disappointed me before and was doing so again. To put it baldly, Merlin’s Bones is unfinished. The first part is highly detailed and presents a number of actors with some intriguing hints at their ultimate goals and their backstories; then, as the story continues, the amount of detail decreases steadily. Many — in fact, I would say most — of the numerous storylines are either dropped or weirdly truncated; even those that are resolved may be passed off in a paragraph. It is hard to escape the feeling that this story was intended at one point to be at least twice as long, but that some circumstance caused Fred Saberhagen to hand it over to the editor before it had developed fully.

It’s a shame that the story fails to “get there,” because the beginning of the story is quite engaging and sets up a number of really interesting characters and the sense of Big Events to come, but in the end the characters aren’t done justice to and the events mostly fail to come off. I’m giving two stars because the first half of the book has some really nice moments, but overall Merlin’s Bones was a disappointment to me.

Published in 1995. In post-Arthurian England, ten-year old Amby and the troupe of traveling players he belongs to are on the run from a conqueror.  He has been gifted with second-sight, and when the troupe stumbles upon an unoccupied castle he is the only one in the group who senses the power that lies within the stone building. In the near future, the Fisher King, Mordred and Morgan le Fay seek to gain control of Dr. Elaine Brusen’s hypostater, a machine capable of altering fundamental reality. Both Amby and Elaine are unwittingly drawn into a power struggle that spans centuries and spills into the realm of fairy and beyond.  Saberhagen reworks Arthurian legend and puts Arthur’s survival, the succession of New Camelot and Merlin’s bones on the line with an exciting blend of romance, danger and adventure.


  • Nathan Okerlund

    Unbeknownst to all, including himself, NATHAN OKERLUND has been preparing for the role of "reviewer of fantasy novels" since he first read Watership Down thirty-odd years ago. He is especially fond of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, and books that have to be read twice to be understood at all, but will happily read anything which does not actually attempt to escape the nightstand. When not occupied with the fantastic he takes brains apart to see how they work, as a postdoctoral fellow studying neurodegeneration, and supports his wife and daughter in their daily heroics.