Nov 24 2012 4:00pm

Anne McCaffrey’s Mark of Merlin

The Mark of Merlin by Anne McCaffreyScience fiction author Anne McCaffrey also wrote romances early in her publishing career. Her recent death inspired me to revisit those works, which I had originally encountered in the mid-1980s. One of those is The Mark of Merlin by Anne McCaffrey:

Carla Murdoch had learned what it was to be alone, growing up on different army posts. But now her loneliness is terrible—for her officer father met a mysterious death on a foreign battlefield, and Carla has been sent to live in her new guardian's New England mansion . . . a remote, snowbound place where she finds she isn't really wanted. Together with her dog, Merlin, Carla must make a new start and face demons within and without—for her father's killer is now on her trail, too.

The Mark of Merlin, published in 1971, is set during World War II. The heroine, James Carlyle “Carla” Murdoch, has grown up as an army brat, traveling with her father until the outbreak of the war. When he’s sent overseas, she and her German Shepherd, Merlin, are sent back to the United States, where she begins to attend college. Then her father is killed, and when the novel opens, she’s traveling to meet her new guardian Regan Laird, a man whom she’s never met…and because of her name, he thinks she’s a boy.

The suspense plot of the novel takes up as much or more space than the romance, and they seem to develop independently of each other. I’ll be honest, the romance in this story is not the most compelling I’ve ever read. In fact, the romance is a bit…vintage…in the way the hero interacts with his younger heroine.

“If I've told you once, I've told you a dozen times to use that stool. I don't want you breaking your fool neck.”

“Stop sounding like a father,” I snapped irritably, our previous rapport shattered.

“My feelings towards you at the moment are scarcely paternal,” he retorted heatedly, his jaws clenched. When he had encircled my waist, my hands had automatically gone to his shoulders for balance. Furious at his proprietary manner, I dug my nails into his shoulders. “Why you little…” and before I knew it, he had hooked an arm around my waist, roughly jerking me against him. He wound the fingers of the other hand in my tangled hair and pulled my head towards his.

His mouth fastened angrily on mine. He must have intended that kiss as a disciplinary affront. But the moment our lips met, the moment I responded, his intentions changed. I could feel it in the tenderness of his mouth on mine, in the longing strength of his arms as they tightened about me. I had never been kissed like this before, not even by the acknowledged lady-killer of Riley. And Regan was no less hungry for such caresses than I.

But there are some interesting aspects to the guardian/ward relationship portrayed here. Despite Carla being a college student and Regan an army officer, there is a less than ten-year difference in their ages. Regan seems much older because of his wartime experiences; at the time of the story, he’s on leave because he was badly wounded and facially scarred. I wondered how this would affect their relationship after the end of the novel. And there’s a twist on the trope; at one point, Carla realizes that, given her father’s knowledge of the kind of men she likes, and the fact that she’s already technically an adult, the guardianship was very likely a setup, her father’s way of providing for her in the event of his death. Also, once their romantic relationship is established, Carla is definitely on the feisty end of heroines, and is fierce with her banter.

The historical details of the novel are a lot of fun for me given that, even for romances published today, the World War II setting is uncommon. And there is resonance with McCaffrey’s future novels about the dragonriders in Carla’s interactions with her dog, Merlin.

… It is difficult, I agree, to reassure the timid that one hundred and twenty pounds of silver-black German shepherd was in actual fact a driveling coward. I could show his K-9 papers discharging him on the ground of “insufficiently aggressive behavior” and I would find people ready to discredit the word of the undersecretary of war.

The Mark of Merlin in fascinating reading both for McCaffrey fans interested in her early work, and for those interested in exploring early examples of the romance genre.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War One-set Spice Brief is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at

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1. Dragon47
I used to LOVE this book. I checked it out from the library a bunch of times years ago. I think it fell victim to an unfortunate book purge, which meant I lost access to some of my favorites. If my life depended on it, I wouldn't have been able to remember the title or the author's name. Thanks to this post, I'll be able to find it now :) I can't wait to read it again.
2. e_bookpushers
I really enjoyed reading and re-reading her old romances. This is one of my favorites.
Victoria Janssen
3. VictoriaJanssen
@Dragon47, I'm glad I was able to jog your memory!

@E_Bookpushers, my fave is Stitch in Snow.
4. Perata
My favorite of her SF/Romance and my introduction to Anne McCaffery was "Restoree". I read it so many times that my old paperback has been taped back together - highly, highly recommend that you pick it up.
5. Copper
McCaffery still is one of my favorite authors and sometimes you have to squint to see the romance in her books, but when you do see it, they have a tendency to surprise and delight. I think my favorite novella of hers that wasn't the Dragonriders, not to mention having more than its fair share of romance, was the "Coelura". Not to mention the relationships that develop in "The Ship Who Sang" are some of the more powerful ones I've ever seen in fiction.

@Perata - I tried reading Restoree back in the day and couldn't get into it. Might have been because, at the time, I was in middle school and something like that wasn't my jive. Maybe I'll have to go back and give it a shot.
Deborah Gebhardt
6. Gebhardt53
I wouldn't call this SciFi, but a good story. Of McCaffery's romances I really like Stitch in Snow.
7. JLC
You can still find copies of an omnibus collection of three McCaffrey romances called Three Women. It includes the book reviewed here, The Mark of Merlin, as well as Ring of Fear and The Kilternan Legacy. That's where I learned to love Mark of Merlin. It is just a classic, old fashioned romance with a slightly unusual setting and plot. There are interesting characters in the story and you can see Ms. McCaffrey's talent shine.
Ring of Fear was just as interesting, and is set in the 1970s. I go back and forth as to which one is my favorite. Thanks for the reminder!
9. Steve carter
I have just read comments on this book
the mark of merlin by Anne McCaffreys
and it was set in ww2
about a dog German shepherd
there is a cover of the book showing a lady with a dog
i have a water Color painting that I believe it may have been a picture they was thinking of using for the book cover and this shows a different picture
dog lady and a man standing
Same dog etc it it signed and it has the title of the book painted on it
i must get to read it as its sounds good
I haven't much time lately as I'm downsizing .
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