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Robert Holdstock
Simon & Schuster Earthlight, 434 pages

Robert Holdstock
Born in 1948 in Kent, Robert Holdstock worked in medical research before becoming a full-time writer in 1975. He has written more than 20 novels under his own name and various pseudonyms, and has received both the British Science Fiction Award and the World Fantasy Award for his work. He lives in London, but escapes to the forests whenever possible.

Robert Holdstock Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn
SF Site Review: The Mythago Cycle
Interview with Robert Holdstock

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Does the world really need another series about Merlin? The fantasy genre is awash in Arthurian books, many of them, it has to be said, pretty unexciting, no matter which approach to the legend they choose. But Robert Holdstock (who visited the Merlin story earlier in his 1994 novel Merlin's Wood) has dusted off this rather shop-worn subject and given it a unique twist, in a novel that situates Merlin mostly outside the Arthur legend, and blends Celtic themes with elements of Greek myth.

Holdstock's Merlin (a nickname; we never learn his real name) is an ancient creature, born in an epoch when the world was nearly empty of humanity. His memories of that beginning time are strangely clouded and incomplete, but his magic is instinctive, for it's engraved upon his bones. To use it ages him. For most of his existence he has hoarded his power, keeping himself young as he walks a mysterious Path around the world. From time to time, when interest or adventure calls, he deviates from the Path; one such call made him part of Jason's band of Argonauts, on the quest for the Golden Fleece.

Now, centuries after the goddess-guided Argo bore Jason off for burial, Merlin has discovered that Jason's two sons, whom Jason believed dead by Medea's hand, are still alive. Following a legend of a screaming ship sunk in a frozen lake, he journeys to the dark north: he believes the ship is Argo, still living, and that if she can be raised, Jason can be brought back to life.

Argo is brought up from the depths, and Jason revived. His thirst for revenge against Medea is intact, exceeded now only by his desire to find his sons. Argo is rebuilt, and a new goddess -- Mielikki, patroness of northern forests -- bound into her keel. Jason assembles a second crew of Argonauts, and sets out with Merlin for the south, on a trail that leads to a vast pan-Celtic army, marching to raid the treasure-filled oracle at Delphi. Jason senses he is moving closer to his children, but there are ominous signs. The goddess Mielikki is resentful of her kidnapping, and isn't acting as the protectress she was meant to be. Merlin is tricked by Niiv, an eager young enchantress who wants his love but settles for stealing his power. Urtha, a British chieftain, discovers his lands strangely empty, blighted by a magic even Merlin doesn't recognize. Over everything hangs the vengeful shadow of Medea -- who like her sons still lives, and to whom, Merlin begins to realize, he may somehow be bound by that ancient past he can't quite recall.

The mythagos of Holdstock's earlier books, ghostly figures confined to mysterious woodlands, are here brought into the world and made flesh: Jason, Medea, Merlin, Niiv (who, I'm betting, will turn out in subsequent volumes to be Nimue, the Lady of the Lake). Celtic mythology has been at the center of Holdstock's previous work, but he has never confined himself to just one culture, incorporating aspects of Greek and North American myth as well. In Celtika the Greek myth is central, while the Celtic elements for the most part aren't mythical at all -- the book often reads, in fact, like a straightforward historical novel, with much realistic detail and many sweaty battle scenes. As for the Arthur legend, it's almost completely absent from this part of the story -- Urtha is obviously Arthur's forbear, and there's a scene in which Merlin's future association with Arthur is prophesied, but that's as far as it goes. Merlin himself, with his strange history and mysterious life-journey, is explicitly severed from the legend, becoming a archetypal figure of no readily identifiable provenance.

I have to say I found all these juxtapositions uneasy at times. The contrasting elements -- Greek/Celtic, fantasy/historical -- are convincing on their own, but odd when they collide: Jason in Urtha's ghostly Britain, Urtha in the thyme- and honey-scented lands of the Greeks, Medea magically meddling in a battle that echoes the historical Battle of Thermopylae. Since there's no obvious parallel between the Matter of Britain and either the original Argosy or the revived Jason's quest to find his sons (which Holdstock structures like a Greek tragedy), it's not really clear why Holdstock chose to wind this particular myth into Merlin's story. As a result, I was never quite able to shake my sense of arbitrariness in the connections between Jason and Merlin, Merlin and Medea, Celtic heroes and Greek oracles. Too, there's a scattered quality to the narrative: the story leaps from the night-bound north to haunted Britain to sunbleached Greece, raising mysteries and refusing to follow them. Holdstock is working with a very large canvas here; I expect that much will be explained as the series unfolds. But there are no "aha!" moments in this book where connections come clear, and this opacity ultimately becomes frustrating.

That said, this is a striking work, which compels attention even in its oddest passages (which are many; the dialogue especially is peculiar). The central notion of Merlin as part of an ancient forbear race, whose magic is literally inborn and whose choice to hoard it has kept him not just youthful but childlike, is a fascinating one. Disassociated, selfish, and not greatly gifted with self-knowledge, he's not a likeable narrator, but he is believable as a nearly immortal creature who has seen almost everything and forgotten much of it. What will induce him to grow up and share his sorcery? Who are the ten mysterious figures that haunt his dreams? How will he encounter Arthur? Who will Medea turn out to be, and where do Jason and his sons fit into it all? Despite my frustrations with Celtika, these and other questions will draw me on to the next installment of this unusual series. Titled The Iron Grail, it's due this summer.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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