By Virgil Renzulli
Bagwyn Books, 2015
Reviewed by Danièle Cybulskie
The best way to describe Virgil Renzulli’s Caliburn: Merlin’s Tale is as a King Arthur origin story, set in an alternate universe. Told by a mysterious stranger called the “Old One” (with broad hints that it is Merlin, although he never admits this to his listeners), Caliburn tells a “what if” story in which Arthur pulls the sword (the titular Caliburn) from the stone and unknowingly hands it to his brother Kaye, who is then proclaimed king. Although Arthur is still the boy with the royal blood, the education of Merlin, and the talent for leadership, it is Kaye who gains the power and recognition, and is promised Brenna: the most beautiful girl in the land – who also happens to be the girl Arthur wants. Meanwhile, a villainous Saxon warlord is planning to invade Britain, and he’s going to start with Kaye’s court at Valphain Castle.
Renzulli sets his story in the mythic world of Arthur rather than the (recently more popular) historical past. In Caliburn, there is a nod to the Roman connection by calling London “Londinium”, but there are also traditional Arthurian anachronisms, such as tournaments (which were not a part of pre-Saxon Britain), and colourful new anachronisms, like a training camp for young warriors. Merlin is only semi-magical, with a gift for mysterious prophesy rather than outright wizardry, and his schemes have a way of going awry before they work themselves out (like the sword in the stone). Arthur is heroic but – as he often admits to himself – naïve, struggling to find his place in the world. Renzulli also introduces a new character: Theil, a Saxon who battles personal tragedy and his own doubts about the wisdom of an invasion of Britain.
While I would have liked to have seen the few female characters have more complex personalities and roles that went beyond being plot devices for the men to fight over, Renzulli fleshes out his male characters with backstories and conflicting loyalties. I found myself rooting for Arthur, and sympathizing with him as he faces tough situations on his road to becoming legend.
If you’re looking for the familiar faces of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Gawain, this is not the story for you. However, if you’d like to see the story of Merlin and young Arthur take a new twist, you may enjoy Caliburn: Merlin’s Tale.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist