Friday, November 06, 2009

Forgotten Books: King of the World's Edge - H. Warner Munn

Originally serialized in the September through December 1939 issues of WEIRD TALES, H. Warner Munn’s KING OF THE WORLD’S EDGE was a prime candidate for reprinting in the Sixties paperback fantasy boom sparked by Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It features swordplay, magic, and lost civilizations. What else do you need?

Well, an Arthurian angle doesn’t hurt. There’s also a nice framing sequence in which a mysterious bronze cylinder is discovered in Key West following a hurricane, and inside the cylinder there’s an ancient document purportedly written by one Ventidius Varro, a Roman legionnaire posted in Britain at the time of Arthur’s rise to power. Like Jack Whyte’s Camulod novels and the movies THE LAST LEGION and KING ARTHUR, KING OF THE WORLD’S EDGE is set during the last days of Roman occupation in Britain, when most of the Roman soldiers are actually second- or third-generation Britons. Ventidius Varro is one of them. Cut off from Rome, these hold-out legionnaires align themselves with Arthur and the enigmatic mage Myrdhinn in order to oppose the invading Saxons and unite the various British tribes. After Arthur’s efforts are crushed and he himself is mortally wounded in battle, Myrdhinn places him in what amounts to suspended animation, hides his body, and then sets sail with a band of legionnaires commanded by Varro in search of a place where they can regroup and figure out a way to retake Britain.

Things don’t work out that way, however. Instead, Myrdhinn and the rest of these British adventurers wind up in a new world far to the west, across the ocean, where they are captured by, escape from, and wind up doing battle with various groups of native tribes. Along the way Varro becomes the staunch ally of a native leader named Hayonwatha, founds his own empire in the new world, and battles to overthrow the evil Mia, who have extended their grasp over the entire continent.

Part of the fun of a book like this is seeing the way Munn comes up with new explanations for all the history and legends of early North America, from Florida up to the Great Lakes, across the continent to the Rocky Mountains and down to Texas. Varro, Myrdhinn, and their friends wander all over and have numerous adventures. The pace is a little slow at times and the writing style is old-fashioned, but after all, the story is being told by Ventidius Varro in a letter intended to be carried back to whatever emperor is currently in power in Rome.

Though it lacks the storytelling power of a yarn by Howard or Burroughs, KING OF THE WORLD’S EDGE is an entertaining, inventive novel with quite a bit of action. Getting the book back in print from Ace was enough to prompt the never prolific Munn to write a sequel, THE SHIP FROM ATLANTIS, almost thirty years after the original. I have that one, too, and hope to read it soon. (I believe both novels were also issued in a combined volume called MERLIN’S GODSON, from Del Rey in the Eighties, but I have the Ace editions.)

Update: Don Herron informs me that there's a third book in the series, MERLIN'S RING, and refers to it as Munn's masterpiece. He also recommends Munn's historical novel THE LOST LEGION. There's two more books for me to look for!


Charles Gramlich said...

I read this a number of years back and enjoyed it. Good for what it was, although without the narrative drive of Howard for sure.

Todd Mason said...

Hey, what Munn I've read, I prefer to Howard (even if this isn't the best place to note that, perhaps) had both narrative drive and a cool logic to it...I really should seek out more.

Todd Mason said...

Of course, Munn lived a long life, and had more time to mature as a writer. Most of what I've read was later material.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Now that is an eye-catching cover.

AndyDecker said...

A great novel. And this plot has been so often copied.

Munn and Howard are hard to compare, I think. Munn´s novels are more of a blueprint of todays fantasy than Howard´s work.

As much as I love Howard, and as much as his work is in print today, I think his brand of s&s is very out of favour at the moment.

James Reasoner said...


No problem here, you can prefer Munn to Howard.


Yeah, I thought as I was reading this book that the plot was more like something you'd find in today's epic fantasy. Only instead of one 190-page book, Munn's plot would be stretched out over at least five 800-page doorstops today.

Juri said...

Sounds great!

(Word Verification: drusner. Hal Drusner, perhaps?)

Juri said...

Now it's "macult". Sounds like something out of Munn's novel!

Ivan said...

King of the World's Edge and The Ship from Atlantis were published in one book, Merlin's Godson. The sequel to this is Melin's Ring. I first read them in my early teens and loved them. I recently re-read them (I'm now 42) and while I still think they're good, they seem geared for a younger audience who will more appreciate the heroics.

I'm also about to re-read the Lost Legion, which was also one of my favourites. I hope that it has stood the test of time.