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The Hallowed Isle, Book One: The Book of the Sword
Diana L. Paxson
Avon EOS Books, 181 pages

The Hallowed Isle, Book One: The Book of the Sword
Diana L. Paxson
Diana L. Paxson grew up in California. As a child, she made up stories to put herself to sleep. She started writing seriously in 1971. Her first sale was 8 years later. Her influences include Marion Zimmer Bradley, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Renault.

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A review by Jonathan Fesmire

I had the pleasure of being present for Diana L. Paxson's reading from The Hallowed Isle, Book One: The Book of the Sword at the World Fantasy Convention in 1998, so when I had the chance to review the book, I quickly took it.  I'm glad that I did.

In listening to her reading, then in actually reading the book, I found that Paxson has adapted the Arthurian legend in many ways.  She effectively mixes history with her own slant on the legend, creating a story that feels solid and real.  We have the Romans who abandoned Britain, the Picts, Scots and Saxons who want to take it over, and the princes of Britain themselves, constantly in dispute with each other.

As Paxson is also an accomplished historian, the novel is filled with real people from history, friends and enemies alike, such as the Hengest, a Saxon leader, and Vitalinus, the real-life Vortigen.  Readers will likely come to this book with preconceptions; I imagine that most fantasy fans approach any Arthurian novel this way.  Paxson's interpretation surprised me, somewhat.  Still, the story makes perfect sense, even with its changes from more traditional versions.  The major events are here: the conception and birth of Merlin, the battle between the forces of Uthir and Gorlosius, Artur's fostering, and his eventual drawing of the sword.  Yet it all happens differently.

For example, Uthir is portrayed not as king obsessed with Gorlosius's wife, but as an excellent leader.  Gorlosius is a traitor who appreciates his wife only as a symbol of his power.  When Uthir comes to Igierne, she knows who he is and welcomes him to her bed, knowing they will conceive Britain's future defender.  Igierne is, in fact, a Lady of the Lake, a priestess of royal blood, and a guardian of the sword.

Merlin is not the son of the devil or an incubus, but of a "Wild Man," a hairy relative of humans who lives in the forest and guards over Merlin's mother for a time when she gets lost.  Merlin's connection with the land, animals, and the spirit world all fall into place.

Yes, I said that Igierne is a Lady of the Lake, for there are many.  These women are the ancestors of Merlin, Igierne, and Artur.  Merlin and Igierne are cousins, making Artur the wizards' second-cousin.  These relations give Paxson's interpretation a believable unity.

The Book of the Sword is merely the first part of this series, the first section of a greater novel.  Following will come The Book of the Spear, The Book of the Cauldron, and The Book of the Stone. At the World Fantasy Convention, Diana Paxson said that it's the goal of many mainstream authors to write the Great American Novel, and the goal of many fantasy writers to pen the Great Arthurian Novel.  With The Book of the Sword, Paxson is off to a strong start.  I will eagerly await the rest.

Copyright © 1999 by Jonathan Fesmire

Jonathan Fesmire has travelled to France, Germany, Estonia, Finland, and Ireland. He enjoys speaking French and learning bits of other foreign languages, but most of all, he loves writing, and has sold fiction to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, SpaceWays Weekly, Jackhammer, and others.

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