The Forever King, by Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy, is almost two books blended together. One is an unusual take on the Grail legend, with some familiar characters like Merlin and Nimue. The other is a contemporary fantasy thriller about the reincarnation of King Arthur and a drunken ex-FBI agent who must help him. The Grail retelling has the most chance of being successful but ultimately both stories fail because of poor characterization and clichéd writing. The book, published in 1992, is the first of three in a series.
Hal Wozniak is a top-grade FBI agent who, in one case, fails to save a child’s life. He leaves the FBI and becomes a drunk. In the meantime, an enigmatic serial killer escapes from an asylum in England; and two crack addicts break into a vault in a Chicago bank (yes, that’s right, two crack addicts) and empty out the safe deposit boxes. They drop a strange hollow metal orb, which is discovered by the ten-year-old Arthur Blessing, an orphan who lives with his aunt.
What an amazing coincidence! Arthur is the reincarnation of King Arthur, of course, and the metal orb is the Grail. Soon Arthur and Aunt Emily, a brilliant scientist who let her career stall to raise her dead sister’s child, are on the run from hit-men. They go to England, because Arthur has just — surprise! — inherited a castle there. Meanwhile, Hal meets a strange elderly man in the street and immediately after that mysteriously wins a trip to England on a game show, because the old man is Merlin, awakened from centuries of sleep by the convergence of Arthur with the cup.
The escaped serial killer calls himself Saladin. He is a millennia-old villain who found the cup and its restorative properties (it grants immortality) in the days of the Sumerian kingdoms. Saladin has some of the better dialogue in the book but never moves beyond two-dimensional villain status, and there are some important things about him that are never explained.
The modern-day story is filled with clichés; the game show, cheerful but dimwitted English local cops and a scene where Emily takes off her glasses, unwinds her hair from its restrictive bun and — why, Miss Blessing! You’re beautiful! The plot languishes as everyone waits around for the villains, who have abducted Arthur, to deliver ransom notes and so on. Even action sequences unroll in a flat sequential prose, creating little excitement.
In the backstory of Saladin, Merlin, King Arthur and the cup, Nimue is a pleasant surprise of a character and a different take on the woman who seduced Merlin. Another lovely bit is the interpretation of Arthur’s castle, which moves through time to appear in our world at Midsummer, June 21.
The final confrontation between Saladin and Hal has the expected outcome; again, there is no real suspense.
The genesis of the magical orb is the most interesting element here and it doesn’t carry the rest of the book. The writers play fast and loose with the Arthurian legend. Sometimes that can work; it doesn’t here. The shortcuts the writers take with the plot and the backstory don’t read as amateurish so much as openly cynical. “We have to get the cup out of the safe deposit box some way — oh, let’s just have some crack addicts manage a complex vault break-in.” Both partners in this writing team have skill. This book suffers mostly from a lack of commitment to the story. I will avoid the other two books in the trilogy.