The Mercutio Problem, by Carol Anne Douglas (Hermione Books)
I picked up The Mercutio Problem unaware that it was a sequel to Merlin’s Shakespeare. One of the challenges of writing a stand-alone book within a series, or linked to other series, is the balance between giving the new reader all the necessary background, developing the characters well enough, and yet not boring readers who are already familiar with the cast and setting. Sometimes I can’t tell if a book is a sequel or a stand-alone with a rich and brilliantly handled back story. In this case, it became obvious almost immediately, although to her credit, the author gave me all the information I needed to understand and enjoy the present story.
So the back story from the first book is that Merlin (from the legends of King Arthur) enlists the help of Beth Owens, high school theater student, to convince William Shakespeare to write a play about King Arthur. In the course of this adventure, she meets many characters from Shakespeare’s plays, including flirtatious, charismatic Mercutio (from Romeo and Juliet) and the ultimate villain, Richard III.
At the beginning of the present book, Mercutio is dead, slain not by Tybalt but by Richard. Here comes Merlin again, only this time the problem is that Richard wants to change the ending of Shakespeare’s plays (especially his own) and is going about enlisting various other characters and the ghost of Christopher Marlowe in order to pressure Shakespeare. Not only that, but Merlin offers an added inducement to Beth, that she will take the form of Mercutio within Shakespeare’s plays and if she dies in that form, he will live again. Got all that?
Then comes the fun part, visiting the plays and interacting with the characters, many of whom wander into other plays, too. The dialog is often brilliant, reflecting not only Shakespearean language but the particularities of the specific character (for example, Julius Caesar always talks about himself in the third person and rambles on about honor and fate). Bottom has gone missing, so Midsummerland is perpetually rainy (and Bottomless). Lady MacBeth, who knows a thing or two about tyranny and regret, plays a pivotal role in organizing the resistance against Richard, and King Lear, consumed with guilt, goes rampaging through the other plays to slay anyone who wants to keep the plays as they were originally written.