Merlin’s Harp: For fans of lush prose and coffee

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book reviews Anne Eliot Compton Merlin's HarpMerlin’s Harp by Anne Eliot Crompton

Reading Merlin’s Harp, I realized something about novels that portray the interaction between the human world and Faerie. They usually don’t tell the stories of fae folk in their own homeland. There are exceptions, of course, but authors tend to focus on faeries stuck in the human world, or humans encountering Faerie. I think I may know why that is. When writing about faeries living in Faerie, it’s all too easy to have nothing happen.

Anne Eliot Crompton uses beautiful, if occasionally stilted, language to draw us into her take on Arthurian legend:

When I was yet a young woman I threw my heart away.

I fashioned a wee coracle of leaf and willow twig and reed, a coracle that sat in the hollow of my two palms. In this I placed my wounded, wretched heart, and I set it adrift on the rain-misted wavelets of the Fey river, and I watched it bob and whirl, sail and sink. Ever since I have lived heartless, or almost heartless, cold as spring rain, the way Humans think all Fey live. Humans I have known would be astounded to learn that I ever had a heart that leapt, brightened, fainted, quickened, warmed, embraced, froze or rejected, like their own.

The narrator is Niviene, daughter of the Lady of the Lake. In the ensuing chapters, Niviene endeavors to tell us how she came to the point of throwing her heart away. This ornate, image-rich prose continues, and Niviene meanders and digresses in her tale. She’ll mention an old family friend, then backtrack and tell us all about how she came to meet him before going back to the main thread of her narrative.

By combining the flowery style with a narrative that is ever looping back on itself, Crompton conveys a sense of what Faerie is said to be like. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and time doesn’t flow in Faerie the way it does in the human realm. The trouble is, it’s too hypnotic. Lulling. Dreamlike. Reading Merlin’s Harp made me sleepy. While falling into an enchanted slumber and waking on the cold hillside is very much in keeping with Faerie tradition, it doesn’t help propel one through a novel.

It also doesn’t help that not much happens in the first hundred pages or so, which is as far as I got before giving up. Roughly the first ninety pages are taken up with an interpretation of the Lady of Shalott tale, and a rather uninteresting one. The main problem is Gwenevere, who spends this entire sequence drugged and being toddled around like a doll. Sure, she’s gorgeous, but can physical beauty alone account for the trouble she unwittingly causes here? I’ve seen sympathetic Gweneveres and unsympathetic ones, but all the best portrayals afford her some charisma that helps explain why she is so loved.

This is followed by a four-page sequence (I counted) in which Niviene gets pregnant and gives birth to a son, the son grows to the age of five, and then the son goes missing. All in four pages. That was when I decided to give up. If it takes ninety pages for a young boy to break a young girl’s heart in favor of a pretty woman in a stupor, and four pages for a fetus to become a five-year-old, the pacing is just a little too strange for me, Faerie or no.

Merlin’s Harp contains some lovely language and an interesting perspective on the Matter of Britain, but finally the pacing and the hypnotic effect were too much for me. I recommend it to fans of lush prose who have plenty of coffee on hand.


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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