Merlin’s Bones, by the prolific Fred Saberhagen, is a wonderful fantasy with touches of science fiction. Saberhagen uses several narrators to tell a story that takes place both in the 21st century and in the 5th century. While the novel contains Arthurian characters and elements, this is not a retelling of the legend. Rather, it is a new story set in the Arthurian universe, if you will.
Ten-year-old Amby narrates one thread of the novel. He and his friends, a troupe of performers who travel England a few years after King Arthur’s death, enrage a savage king and must take refuge in and defend a mysterious house on a peninsula of land jutting into the sea. Amby, who is very sensitive to magic, discovers peculiar things about this sanctuary, such as the burial place of Merlin’s bones. As this narrative progresses a boatload of Vikings joins the group, including a druid who insists he must take Amby on an important journey.
Meanwhile, Dr. Elaine Brusen is in the twenty-first century, working on a hypostator, a machine that can present images of any time or place in history. One night while she is alone in her laboratory, verses from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot” unaccountably appear on her computer screen. At the same time she receives a visit from a mysterious man with a staff who calls himself Fisher, and later the lab is invaded by Morgan, a beautiful and ruthless woman who wants to see Camelot on the hypostator.
As you would guess, these characters come together as the book progresses, and their narratives begin to be interspersed with narratives by Bran, one of the performers, and Hakon, a Viking. The different points of view are interesting, though you must be sure to keep track of who is telling the tale at any given time.
Saberhagen tells his story well. It is full of action, suspense, and magic. (There are also instructions on how to fight trolls, which some of you may find helpful.) There are many surprises in this novel; some of which I guessed long before they were revealed, but one which truly startled me. There is a science fictional element which is vital to the story, but there is little scientific detail, and even people who don’t like science fiction shouldn’t be bothered.
There is some time travel, which I found confusing, but I usually do find this subject perplexing, so perhaps it will make sense to other readers. Even if it doesn’t, just relax and take Saberhagen’s word for it. This is a delightful story.