It’s a grim world, 500 years in the future: a place of endless cold, of snow in June, of mutant creatures, twisted by radiation, the result of a nuclear exchange that had ended human industrial civilization. The stark image, depressingly similar and yet also alien, forms a great stage for the magic of the return of Merlin and Arthurian legend to the world, an exciting story of adventure, growing up, and a battle between good and evil. For a young adult book, it is a striking and emotionally charged work.
The greatest asset of Pamela Service is her ability to write engaging, emotional, and full fledged characters. Merlin (Earl Bedwas), Heather, Welly, Arthur: they fell very real, with human weaknesses and defects. Buffeted by their feelings of loneliness, of not being wanted, of exclusion, their need for human contact, they feel, the three main characters like a group of three musketeers: the shunning from society that they feel is well used by the book to advance its plot and human relations. The magic which is growing into the world sets them apart, and the sympathy one feels for those who have been cursed with such a gift is resonant. But I question to what extent Merlin being in a young body would transform him back in his mind to the emotional stage of a teenager: in any case it is an interesting idea.
Service has a good feel for emotion. At times, this becomes almost melodramatic, such as in the feelings inspired towards the end of the book by the evil amulet (itself a good representation of the previous note on the need for belonging and attachment which derives from it). But it gives a real sense of the feelings of sadness, lack of belonging, and trouble fitting in which characterizes the sentiments of the main characters. And the warm with minor characters is notable as well, such as with the Pemrose family with John Wesley, who they stay with on their quest.
One of these characters however, is notably less filled out than the others: Welly, the boy who starts the book, quickly fades ultimately into a much less significant and meaningful character than heather or Earl: he feels like a fifth (or rather, third), wheel at best, or an impediment. He lacks magic like the others, he is not a member of the emerging relationship between Earl and Heather, and he is not, after the beginning of the book, granted a role in any of the crucial struggles of the book. He is a hapless bystander, dragged along by the tide of fate, and the other characters. Welly doesn’t need magic to be a valuable member of the group, but his other skills are mostly ignored. As a strategic, his training with weapons, his extensive reading: surely there was some part of the book where he could be fit in to good effect? A sword duel with a guard or a villainous enemy? A strategy in battle? A historical knowledge that points the way? The end of the book, after saving Heather during her attempt at self-magic training, sees him vanish almost entirely, like a ghost in the pages.
The world which Service created is a fascinating one: it is full of little details that bring it to life, such as the light dusty of July snow, or the old pieces of the pre-Devastation (as is termed the nuclear apocalypse) world, the mushrooming of churches and cults following the apocalypse, the small details of the small modifications to the animals which survived the end of the world, such as horses with their triple hooves. I have my doubts about some of the wreckage of the old world, such as the broken remnants of street lamps, lasting so long, and there is much scientific doubt about the long term viability of nuclear winter that seems likely to make the prospect of a 500-year old freeze unlikely, but its fundamental idea is fascinating.
And its a central conception of cycles of magic, of the rebirth of Merlin, of the new types of magic present. It is an inspired twist on the Arthurian legend, taking it and adapting it to today, its worries, and fears. Perhaps in the year 2021 we fear more global warming than the prospect of nuclear winter, but a world where materialism, hate, and a lack of appreciation for the simple beauties of humanity and nature has led to our destruction is a resonant and enduring message.