After writing four YA novels featuring contemporary realism and romance, Robyn Schneider is throwing her outsiders-in-love antics back—way back. In The Other Merlin, Schneider makes her first foray into fantasy, retelling the legend of King Arthur for today’s teens. The first book in a planned trilogy, it contains enough mystery, sex, mistaken identities and scandalous clashes of class and nobility that it could be titled Bridgerton: Knights of the Round Table.
The titular “other” Merlin is Emry, a highly skilled teenage wizard who spends her days performing special-effects illusions on the sly at her local theater while her father, the O.G. Merlin, trains her less talented twin brother, Emmett. After Merlin vanishes, the king sends a request for Emmett to take Merlin’s place at court. But when Emmett is incapacitated by a spell that backfires, Emry decides to fill in for her brother, chopping off her hair and binding her chest to look the part. She wants to ensure that her family stays in the king’s good graces, but she also sees an opportunity to nurture her talents, since girls aren’t allowed to learn or practice magic.
Meanwhile, Prince Arthur has just pulled that silly sword out of the stone. This stuns his family, who don’t think much of Arthur’s love for books and gardening, not to mention his buddy-buddy relationship with an unfairly dishonored Lancelot. When Emry arrives, the three become fast friends. They form a team of outsiders who are trying to grow into the best versions of themselves, fate be damned. Can Arthur be a good king if he defies his father’s wishes? Can Lancelot be a knight if he loves another man? Can Emry be a great wizard like her father even though she’s a woman? As she explores the answers to these questions, Schneider reworks the classical hero’s journey through an unapologetically feminist lens.
Though her author’s note mentions working on The Other Merlin in 17th-century libraries, Schneider is hardly precious with her source material. She maneuvers deftly through conversations about gender, sexuality and equity in a medieval setting that feels grounded and relatable. Is any of it canonical? Probably not, but who cares! In a world filled with wizards, spells and glowing magical swords, why can’t everyone be bisexual? It certainly makes for more interesting love triangles, which are plentiful. Arthurian legend, after all, is basically a centuries-old soap opera, so why not make it extra soapy?
Funny, thrilling, brave and bold, The Other Merlin is the perfect way to pass the time until the next Renaissance Faire. Schneider’s Arthurian tale stands out amid a crowd of old, dusty duplicates.