The Other Merlin Is a Fantastical Gender-Bent Twist on the Arthurian Legend
There’s no denying that gender-swapped retellings are all the rage in young adult literature right now. Perhaps it’s because it’s always exciting to see a well-loved and classic story told from a fresh and underutilized perspective. This is nonetheless true for Robyn Schneider’s latest, The Other Merlin, a swoony and smart young adult fantasy novel that reimagines Camelot and its broad cast of characters in a new and clever way, with a young female Merlin at the center.
The novel begins with the perspective of Emry Merlin, the daughter of the former court wizard, who is forced to use her magic conjuring illusions for her local theatre troupe while her twin brother, Emmett, uses his much less impressive skills to cheat and gamble. When Emmett’s gambling debts come calling, he attempts to erase the debt collectors’ memories, only for it to backfire and cause him to black out.
To add to the bad luck, Emmett receives his court summons to serve the king as the next court wizard—except he can’t go due to the aftereffects of the spell. With her family in bad need of the kingdom’s money, Emry decides to take her twin’s place, just until he wakes up.
Of course, things get more complicated when Emry arrives and begins to connect with her long-buried power and love of magic. While Emry has always wanted to learn, she’s surprised at how much there is to know, and at the depths of her power, having repressed her desire to be a wizard knowing that girls are not allowed. When Emry returns home to switch places with her brother, he insists she’s the one who belongs there after all. While Emmett may not have an innate gift, she does, and the longer she’s there, the closer friends she becomes with Prince Arthur and his friend Lance, who have their own set of problems.
While Arthur has recently freed the mythic sword from the stone, he has no clue how to live up to its promise and be the king he’s supposed to be, preferring to spend his time in the library or magic workshop in order to escape his drunken father’s domineering rule. Meanwhile, his best friend, Lancelot, should be a knight, but was demoted to a guard two years ago after being caught in a compromising position with the son of a noble.
Things also become more complicated as Emry and Arthur’s friendship grows closer and their feelings more complex. Readers will love the slow-burn, friends-to-lovers romance, made all the more thorny as Emry maintains her disguise as Emmett due to the possible threat of execution for posing as a man at court. The further Emry goes, the more she knows she can’t maintain her disguise forever, even as she realizes she and Arthur can never be anything more than friends, thanks to his arranged engagement to the princess Guinevere.
While Emry, Arthur, and Lance may not yet know how to fulfill their destinies, it’s clear that the bond between them is fated. After Arthur journeys on a quest to Avalon with Emry and Lance at his side, they learn that much more about their future responsibilities to lead Camelot and unite England, and about the wicked evils that lie just under their nose. But having a destiny isn’t enough to claim it when the will and burden of the kingdom always press in.
The Other Merlin is full of Arthurian Easter eggs and subtle twists on the classic legend. Longtime fans will recognize the cast of characters, including the villainous wizards hiding behind the scenes, and appreciate the reexamination of Merlin, Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere in a new, modern light. Conversely, newcomers to Camelot will enjoy the novel’s fantasy and romance without need for backstory or orienting.
Fans of V.E. Schwab, Tamora Pierce, and Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception will love the romance, action, adventure, heart, humor, and magic of Schneider’s The Other Merlin. Schneider incorporates subtle feminism with Emry posing as her brother and the concrete unfairness she faces at the fact that she must do it at all—women cannot be court wizards, after all.
The novel is also quietly and incisively queer, with a bisexual Merlin and gay Lancelot in starring roles in a way that feels like an authentic part of the world. Schneider makes it clear with her worldbuilding what values are and aren’t part of Camelot society, making it easier to grasp onto magic in the face of homophobia and sexism.
Fear not—The Other Merlin comes to a satisfying conclusion while clearly ending with room for more sequels. With so much room to explore in the world of Camelot and beyond, I can’t wait to see Schneider’s magical sequel down the road. Until then, you can get your copy of The Other Merlin now, wherever books are sold.
(image: Penguin Random House)
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