Book review

The Malifex by Steve Alton (2001)

Do you know about Merlin?

He was the wizard who watched over the young King Arthur. And when that task was finished, Merlin went to rest for a while, under an enchanted stone somewhere out on the desolate moors, waiting for a time when his services would be needed again in the desperate fight for good against evil.

That's where this new story starts. If you turn over the first page of The Malifex, you will discover that it wasn't actually Merlin who went to lie down and wait for the next call of mankind in trouble. Merlin, we learn, slunk off to have a nice time with Nimue, and persuaded his apprentice to lie cold under the stone for a long age. Well, that's what it's like, dealing with a wizard.

Anyway, Amergin the Apprentice is not without power. And nor, it would seem, is young Sam who visits the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset briefly for a standard type of holiday with his parents.

Great start. In order to avoid spending a tedious week with his parents, he seeks out the company of the girl in the neighbouring farm cottage, Charly. It isn't very promising. She thinks her mother is a witch. But as they wander around the local barrows and tumuli, Sam is overwhelmed with a prescience:

'What was it again?' he repeated. 'The rhyme?'
Charly looked at him uncertainly and began,
'I am the wind upon the sea ...'
'Yes! I am the wind upon the sea - I don't even know what it means, but I know it!' He cleared his throat.
'I am the wind upon the sea
I am the flood across the plain
I am the hawk above the cliff
I am the thorn beneath the rose'
He dropped his arms and stared at the end of the barrow, suddenly wondering what one earth he was doing. At least the feeling of tension in his head had gone. He turned to Charly with an embarrassed grin, but she was pointing past him, back to the barrow.
'Look,' she said, in a small voice. Sam turned to look.

You can be sure that if Amergin has been awakened from his long sleep in order to fight the great darkness, then evil is abroad. Unfortunately, Amergin is expecting to assist a great hero, but the only great hero who seems to be around is Sam. It's quite a challenge.

There are some brilliant moments in this story. I was astonished to come face to face with the Green Man, and I was thrilled to share Sam's revelation about The Song of Amergin: 'I am the flood across the plain, I am the hawk above the cliff' ...

Read it for yourself, and see.

What can I read next?

This is Steve Alton's first book, but if you like this kind of fantasy, you are in luck, because there is a lot of it around. Specifically, if you would like to meet Merlin, still fighting the good fight, you could look at this sequence of stories by Susan Cooper known as The Dark Is Rising:

The Malifex also reminds me very strongly of this excellent book by Alan Garner:

I thoroughly enjoyed the scene in The Malifex where Charly and Sam take Amergin into the local village to show him how things have moved on in the two thousand years that he has been asleep. It reminded me of the hilarious book by Richard Carpenter, which I have not reviewed here (yet), but which I recommend for light reading:

  • Catweazle

If you are interested in Merlin, have a quick look at my article in the Ideas section:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Malifex features in these lists: