In the conclusion to Pamela F. Service’s New Magic trilogy, set In Britain half a millennium in the future after the destruction of human civilization by a great nuclear war, and in the years following the return of Arthur and Merlin to a world where magic is starting to return, a great battle stands to decide the fate of both our worlds and the magical lands that lie beyond it. To restore the forces of balance in the universe, to finally make the world secure for peace and justice, Merlin must undertake a great quest to right an ancient wrong, a quest which he can only succeed in if he masters the new magic which is growing up from the land, and utilizes the wisdom of Heather, the magician of the new style. Thus the plot is set for Earth’s Magic.
There are some excellent strong suits of Earth’s Magic. The hatched dragons that set off the book are a charming and cute bunch, even without the witty dry humor of their mother Blanche, the hero of the second book, Yesterday’s Magic. It creates an interesting twist on the traditional story of Merlin, creating a new story of his origins that it explores with an engaging quest, and its portrayal of the Lady of Avalon is in the spirit of the Arthurian Legend. Magic feels real, tastefully done, a force that even Merlin still struggles to understand. The way that it changes over time, the differing forms of magic in every cycle, are shown again in this book and expanded upon.
But while I continue to enjoy the characters and the world that Service has created, Earth’s Magic feels like it becomes more and more shaky and rushed, lacking the grounding and the reality of the first books. It introduces the specter of a great battle for the fate of the world, one that is provoked by the disbalance in the life-force of the universe, by the very creation of categories of good and evil which have falsely divided both our own world and the Otherworlds: and yet why it is now that they have finally culminated in this great struggle, a Gotterdammerung?
And the stakes of what this means for the world are too, never clearly explained. In previous books, the lines are clear: either Arthur and his vision of a more unified, peaceful, brighter future, one of harmony with nature and the restoration of a better past, will succeed, or it will be the triumph of Morgan, the plunging of Britain and even the world into a new darkness, of hideous corruption and evil. Morgan is active in this book, but although she assumes a role as a principal antagonist, she is firmly a secondary character: the nature of the battle is far greater than her alone. The world will be destroyed supposedly if Arthur loses, but the why, the how, are never clearly explained.
The plot of the book feels very rushed in this regards. Merlin and Heather succeed without any real failure on their part: they never suffer capture, defeat, or even simple to be led astray to the wrong location. Their solutions work effortlessly, such as their way of using the horses to search for their quest to find what they’re looking for: I would have expected a defeat, a setback, at one point, but instead they achieve without any real challenge. It makes the book feel like it is in a straightjacket, on rails towards its conclusion, the hand of fate (or the author) protecting the characters. And the cliché of finding a word of power, and its simple utterance solving all of the problems: it feels like a cheap way out. The same goes particularly for characters, who when they suffer grievous blows and are on the verge of death, can be brought back by healing: there is no real sacrifice in the book, but instead the deus ex machina of magic.
There’s always been a bit of moral grandstanding in Service’s books, but it comes out more strongly in this one: if people in an inn talk about hating and wanting to exterminate the Mutties (the mutated section of the human population, twisted by radiation – most often but not always into dark and evil creatures – and transformed into mutated creatures) then the immediate following chapter is about running into good mutties. They’re good stories and well done, but I don’t like the excessively obvious foreshadowing and setting the stage.
It’s still a decent young adult book, a fun tale of magic, fantasy, heroism, and quests, but it loses the immediately pressing moral questions of the first books dealing with the tremendous devastation that industrial civilization has wrought upon the world through the death throes of nuclear war, and its story feels much more railroaded and obvious than the first books, hastily done and lacking the tension of real suspense.