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!