Fierce Fantasy Night – Writing Panel Recap

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Unsouled by Will Wight




The Merrily Watkins Series by Phil Rickman

The Merrily Watkins Series by Phil Rickman
Book Name: The Merrily Watkins Series
Author: Phil Rickman
Publisher(s): Macmillan / Corvus
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Horror / Supernatural Thriller
Release Date: 1998 – 2011

Rather than review the books individually from this fantastic series, I thought instead I would review the series as a whole. It’s easy to do, considering I would give each of the eleven books a five-star rating. If you’ve never read Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series about a spunky, female exorcist in Hereford, then you’re missing out on some of the most suspenseful, gritty and addictive “detective” stories ever written. Part of what makes the series work so well is the fact that the genre is difficult to categorize: it is in part mystery, gothic horror and supernatural crime thriller (I realize it’s a stretch to call it fantasy, but I definitely think there’s crossover appeal).

Merrily Watkins is a single mom and the vicar in a small rural town called Ledwardine. When she is given the dubious honor of being named “Deliverance Consultant” (exorcist), each call that comes in claiming a possession or haunting is never straightforward, and Merrily plays detective, exorcist and worried mother. The setting of rural England near the Welsh border is ideal for all of the pagan rituals, ancient stones and superstitions rooted at the heart of each conflict, giving the novels a wonderful gothic atmosphere.

Merrily herself is delightfully flawed. Her faith is easily shaken, she’s scared to death, and she’s up against old, patriarchal families who strongly dislike having a female vicar, let alone exorcist. She’s addicted to cigarettes and is often trodden down by the will of her teenage daughter, Jane. Some of the local detectives despise her when her diocese work intersects with police investigations, and there is always some backwards malcontent ready to sabotage her efforts to prove she can’t handle the pressure of Deliverance. Jane is always getting into trouble; sometimes it seems her sole obsession is to thwart her mother’s religion by delving into pagan rituals. While Jane’s exploits often appear to be unrelated subplots, they actually parallel the problems that Merrily is trying to solve, which always come together in some kind of bloody and horrific climax that leaves the reader without fingernails. But by far the most appealing relationship in the books is Merrily’s blossoming romance with the musician Lol, a rather broken spirit who is quiet, tender, and the slowest mover in the history of romance. Each kiss and clandestine rendezvous is like a mouth-watering truffle. As soon as the tension seems unbearable, the reader is given tiny rewards that make it all worthwhile, and it’s impossible not to root for these two. The trio is then made complete by a fourth, Gomer Parry, an old, no-nonsense tractor driver who can always be relied on to dig Merrily – literally sometimes – out of trouble.

Rickman’s dialogue is superb. Whether it’s a Welsh farmer or a streetwise London cop, he nails them spot-on. And he’s one of the few authors I know who can pull off writing third-person narrative in dialect. It puts you smack in the middle of each character’s brain, and the prose positively melts in your mouth. And did I mention suspenseful? The end of every chapter is agonizing. Forget cleaning your house or sleeping. Each book, which usually runs somewhere between six- and eight-hundred pages, will demand every moment of your time until it’s finished.

Although the plot of each book is self-contained enough to stand alone, I would still recommend starting with the first book, Wine of Angels (Macmillan, 1998). If I had to pick a favorite, this one would be it. There’s a ghost, the poet Traherne, a doomed play and a positively wicked apple orchard steeped in pagan lore. It also establishes the characters better than any other installment, especially where Lol comes from and why he’s so fragile. From there you could almost take your pick, but still, best to go in order to keep Lol and Merrily’s relationship straight, along with Jane’s growth from an impetuous teen to an impetuous adult. The series is eleven books in (the last just published last year) and shows no signs of slowing down. When you’re caught up, you can read Rickman’s earlier works, which are pure gothic horror and absolutely divine, especially December and Curfew (or Crybbe in the UK). Just leave a nightlight on.



  1. Avatar Nestat says:

    Don’t know if it’s of any use: but for UK residents, Waterstones runs a series of £2.99 books called “Waterstones Loves”. Phil Rickman’s “Wine of Angels” – the first book of the series – is one of them, so if you want to try it… it’s thoroughly worth the read!

  2. Great review… eleven books added to my reading list. Thanks for the heads up… these sound terrific.

  3. Avatar Julie Adams says:

    Great review, Ashley- I too am a fan of all Phil’s books. You must get the 3 CD’s of songs he’s written as well, 2 Lol Robinson & Hazey Jane II CDs: Songs from Lucy’s Cottage and A Message from the Morning. The third is Abbey Tapes: the Exorcism by Philosopher’s Stone (as in December). Music is by Allan Watson. The songs are all gorgeous! They can be ordered from Phil’s website or the mp3s are available via iTunes and Amazon.

  4. Avatar Dave Tangram says:

    I have just finished book 3 in the Series in audiobook format (after having read 1 & 2) and I thought I would add a few things to Ashley’s review which I think is pretty much spot on.

    This is a series that is extremely well written, especially when you compare it with the writings of popular “Vampire” genre authors. However, it can be frustrating to read at times. Phil has a tendency to leave a subplot at a cliffhanger and jump to another just as the events of the subplot are gaining momentum. Personally, I would have preferred those subplots to carry on a bit longer because to me it sometimes detracts from the enjoyment of the subsequent subplot especially if it isn’t one that is as interesting.

    Just to warn readers, book 1 has a great deal of exposition in the beginning and can be slow going for those who are used to faster paced novels, I nearly stopped reading. Furthermore, Merrily is not yet an Exorcist in this book ( she only becomes an exorcist in book 2), even though many reviews refer to her as one. Nevertheless, it probably is essential reading for those who want to know all about this fascinating protagonist.

    I read via Audiobook format and the (female) reader does a great job of switching between accents, characters and even does a fairly decent male voice. I did find a few places where the Welsh(?) accent used for a particular character was so thick it was hard to understand — and this is coming from a guy who went to a Public School near the a Welsh border! However, for many listeners, the wonderful rendition of the many accents may well be a treat that isn’t available in the print version.

    Overall, I think this is an interesting read despite the frustrating jump cuts. I also should re-emphasize Ashley’s point that this is more detective/mystery than fantasy. The ‘supernatural’ elements are so vague or mild that many readers could imagine it happening in real life, not an alternate dimension or reality.

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