Title: Merlin of the Magnolias
Author: Gardner Landry
“It was the kind of bright, halcyon morning that would have augured for a chamber of commerce day for Bayou Boughs had Bayou Boughs been an incorporated city.”
If I had the technological capacity to understand and analyse seismic shifts in energy, my reaction to realising something was going to happen to the city would be a lot more alarmist. But when your title character is named Merlin, it’s almost expected that something about him would be a little off.
An eccentric Houston native, old-money-borne Merlin McNaughton spends his days analysing data readings from his house-turned-observatory while navigating his upper class neighbourhood into his handmade tin foil hat. However, his days of reading energy readings come to a halt when McNaughton’s riches — which come from oil stocks — dry up and he is forced to take on a 9-to-5 job in a blimp base for an advertising company.
McNaughton, who not only stands out because of his tin foil conspiracies but also his weight and appetite, now has to navigate everyday life as a working class and “normal” citizen. While exploring his new life, McNaughton realises from his woowoo technology that a gigantic energy shift is going to hit the Earth and that he has to stop it somehow.
I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Merlin of the Magnolias from the publishers and just like any other person, I’m a fan of the occasional conspiracy theory. Coupled with the underdog trope, Merlin of the Magnolias seemed to be right up my alley. An eccentric man who supposedly sees things that no one else does has a chance to save the world from almost other-worldly energy and all the while learns how to be a better person? Yes please.
But sadly, that’s not what really Merlin of the Magnolias is at all. While I did like McNaughton — he does fit the gentle giant trope — and found him endearing, the book doesn’t live up to its promises.
The premise of Merlin of the Magnolias was supposed to be around the dangerous energy changes the world was going to experience. McNaughton makes his discovery early on in the novel, right around the time he makes the shift to a “working class’ life. However, the tension for the dangerous 2012-esque apocalypse only starts to build after the thirtieth chapter or so. Up until then, any of McNaughton’s discoveries from his data are quickly pushed aside by another plot point. These plot moments never really have time to take root and develop the fear.
So what about McNaughton himself? If the sci-fi element falls short, what about the character development aspect? Well, even at the end, it doesn’t feel like McNaughton ever actually learns any morals. He doesn’t change emotionally, he doesn’t develop further in his arc except maybe to grow a little closer to his existing friends. Not to say McNaughton had to change his personality for the world, but usually there’s a compromise on both ends; both the world and McNaughton should adjust for each other but in this case, the world just moves on.
Merlin of the Magnolias is also filled with so much purple prose; in one chapter, when Landry introduces a new character, his one paragraph about the character’s green thumb could have easily been an one-liner. In another chapter, there’s a brief description of McNaughton having an orgasm, and — written in the purple prose style — it was disturbing enough I wanted to submit it to the Bad Sex Awards. Please never describe ejaculations as “venusian” because I might never want to have sex again.
The other issue is around how Landry describes McNaughton’s weight and eating habits. Because of the purple prose, I couldn’t decide if Landry was making fun of McNaughton and his own obliviousness around his weight. In multiple chapters, when McNaughton goes to try something new, other characters will exchange side-eyes at him. When McNaughton is introduced to someone new, their first comment is always on his size.
Regardless, Merlin of the Magnolias is funny in a very dry, witty way. McNaughton has such a simple view of the world that even the worst things that happen to him have their silver linings. He never really gets fully knocked down, he’s always ready to get back on his feet and keep moving forward with his tin-foiled interests. There’s a little bit of a Merlin in all of us.
The side characters are also so sweet and steal the scene whenever they appear in the novel. The people McNaughton chooses to surround himself with are kind and wise, and love him fully in his eccentrities. They call him gently out on his bullshit, and find ways to support him without ever having to actually say anything. There’s an unspoken camaraderie between them, even if they’re only friends by proxy.
Merlin of the Magnolias is definitely a book for those who are in the mood for something a little softer and sweeter and maybe a little sci-fi lite. Even though it was not my personal cup of tea, it was definitely worth the read. So keep this book on your list for 2021 releases.
Merlin of the Magnolias by Gardner Landry will be released on 12 Jan 2021 and is available from Barnes & Noble for USD $23.95.
This review was first published on The Reader Who Came In from the Heat. Subscribe for more reviews in your inbox.