Merlin the magician only exists in myth and legend - at least that is what archaeology student Jason Carpenter thought until he discovered the mysterious orb that housed history's greatest wizard for 1,600 years. Forced into an uneasy alliance, Jason and Merlin are sucked into a web of deceit, intrigue and murder sending them on a chaotic race to outwit, and out run, Merlin's ancient nemesis, the evil sorceress Morgana LaFay: a gang of drug smugglers and a 500-year-old Chinese necromancer. It is a race against time to complete their quest before an army of dragons are unleashed on a vulnerable and unsuspecting 21st century world.
Revelations, book one of Daniel Diehl’s Merlin Chronicles series, is a mixed bag of meaty fantasy and bizarre missteps. Although it has its share of gaping flaws (to be discussed later), it should be noted, first and foremost, that Revelations will satisfy the expectations of fantasy enthusiasts and demand the attention of lovers of thrillers. There is more than enough action to make this book worth a read if that’s what you’re looking for, and, to its credit, even the ills it suffers from are sociologically interesting enough to make them some of the more intriguing elements of the novel.
Revelations starts us off in medieval England, introduces us to the titular wizard, and then hurtles us into the twenty first century where we meet Jason Carpenter, our protagonist. After accidentally awakening Merlin from a centuries long hibernation, Jason finds himself caught up in a grudge match between the wizard and Morgana Le Fay, his immortal enemy from Arthurian legend. Le Fay’s villainous plot sort of echoes Loki’s in The Avengers. She hopes to acquire a mysterious MacGuffin in order to open an inter-dimensional portal that will allow an army of monsters to slither into our world so that she can take her revenge on her estranged but morally superior brother who has supposedly usurped the throne. This isn’t to say that Diehl “stole.” Wormholes and siblings squabbling over royal titles are fairly standard weapons in the sci-fi and fantasy arsenals, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Diehl had finished his outline before Avengers even hit theatres. The parallels are just interesting from a “Hero With A Thousand Faces” perspective.
Things get fun and energetic as Merlin and Jason dash around York trying to nip Morgana’s plot in the bud. Merlin adapts to 2013 in a sometimes amusing “fish out of water” character arc, Jason struggles to Buffy his personal life with a supernatural war, and Diehl splatters a whole palette of local colour across the world that they inhabit. Diehl is an American who loves English culture, and it shows in Jason and Merlin’s misadventures in York. The portraits he paints of the University and locations like “The Vaults,” (a series of bank vaults converted into a restaurant and bar) are playful and affectionate, but, most importantly, they feel three dimensional.
Then we meet Jason’s love interest, Beverly. This is where things get uncomfortable. Diehl, in his narration assures us that Beverly is a catch by saying she …never seemed to get petulant and bitchy the way some women do because they think it makes them sexy.
Even to someone who approaches feminism with a cautious combination of respect and cynicism, (this guy,) this raises a few red flags. The use of “petulant,” a word usually reserved for chastising disobedient children, alongside “bitchy,” a gender specific slur, and the assumption that women who haven’t responded to Jason’s charms in the past were just trying to be “sexy,” fundamentally alters the mood of the book. Keep in mind that that these aren’t Jason’s words. They come from an omniscient narrator, the same authority that tells us that grass is green and the sky is blue. It doesn’t help that from her introduction Beverly is mostly relegated to standing loyally by Jason’s side and having steamy sex with him. (Or that the second act of the book is repeatedly interrupted for Jason and Bev to go on dates that seem to have little if any relevance to the plot. This inspires a frustration similar to what was experienced by fans of Grand Theft Auto IV when they were asked to stop killing cops and stealing cars for 20 minutes to go out to virtual dinner with their avatar’s cousin.) It gets a lot worse when Morgana - who is justifiably pissed off after losing the throne because of her gender - is revealed to be a succubus who drains men of their vitality using sex.
“God, but she is a brazen bitch,” Merlin complains. “Flaunting herself like the whore of Babylon.” Later, Morgana is revealed to literally be the whore of Babylon.
Although from Beverly onward we end up playing a game of “spot the misogyny,” there is still a lot of good stuff happening in the third act of Revelations. Merlin and Jason break out of York and travel to China and Mongolia, expanding their world to accommodate the increasingly fantastical plot. Some of the characters that we meet abroad come off as two dimensional cultural caricatures, written by someone who has at most read about Asia in a textbook, but it’s all at least done tastefully. The Buddhist monks and nomadic tribesman feel more like homages to the sorts of mystic gyspies and ambitious warlords we met in Ian Fleming's Bond novels than an aborted attempt to accurately portray foreign cultures. Aside from that, Diehl keeps things tight and engaging all the way to the final showdown with Morgana’s forces, and thank god he gets us there because this is where the book really shines. The finale’ of Revelations is smart, slick, and almost believable in a fantastical sort of way. I won’t spoil the book’s finest hour here, but I will say that if Diehl managed to make a book that was consistently as good as these twenty or so pages, he would produce a five star fantasy-thriller classic.
So yeah, fans of the genre should at least check out Revelations. It’s a hearty adventure, and attempting to extract Diehl’s feelings towards women from the text is actually sort of an interesting exercise. (Tell me I’m wrong about Morgana and Bev at firstname.lastname@example.org.) For your reading pleasure, I recommend picturing Merlin as being played by Christoph Waltz, recent recipient of the Oscar for best supporting actor. (Congrats Christoph!) And picture Morgana as Helena Bonham Carter, recent recipient of my heart for being Helena Bonham Carter. (Congrats Marla!) As for Jason, I was initially tempted to dismiss him as an empty shirt who could be played by whatever Shia LaBeouf happened to be answering their phone that afternoon… But then I noticed that Jason has the initials J.C., and that, like another J.C., he is a Carpenter. I think that just about pinpoints the direction that the inevitable sequel will take and locks in Jim Caviezel as our leading man for the film adaptation. In retrospect, Diehl sort of telegraphed that one.
Review by William Kosh
8/10 from 1 reviews
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