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The Iron Grail: Book Two of the Merlin Codex
Robert Holdstock
Earthlight, 416 pages

Larry Rostant
The Iron Grail:  Book Two of the Merlin Codex
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: Celtika
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 Cindy Lynn Speer

Merlin continues his wandering of the world and the careful husbanding of his magic that his kept him youthful since the beginning of time in this second book of The Merlin Codex. He returns to Albion, where he sees that the dead still claim ownership of the fortress of Taurovinda -- literally. Soon, Urtha, the warlord of this fortress, will return from his adventures overseas, Merlin will travel to the Ghostlands to retrieve Urtha's children from hiding, and the Argo, captained by Jason and guided by a young woman named Niiv will set itself ashore. The latter is especially dire news to Merlin. He is avoiding Niiv because her love for him and desire to learn from him is a dangerous and scary entanglement for the man, and because Jason, feeling betrayed by Merlin, is probably going to try to kill him. Urtha and Jason have their own plans. Urtha, to take over Taurovinda and discover why the Dead and Unborn seem to want it so desperately, Jason to find his lost son, the Little Dreamer, who his wife Medea stole away so long ago.

Now, if you and I'd been sitting around talking, and you told me that there was a book where Merlin not only hitched a ride on the Argo, but played an active part in the myth of Jason and his Argonauts, I probably would have wrinkled my nose and changed the subject. It's not that I'm a snob (really, I'm not) but I am serious about my Arthurian myths. If I had done so, I would have done myself, and the author, a grave disservice. The Merlin we have here is true to form. He is wise, powerful, but his powers are something he must carefully hoard less he age himself before his path ends. He is also trying to keep distance between himself and mankind but seems, as always, to be unable to. He, and the woman we know mostly as Medea, were born together in the Ghostlands, and parted years ago despite their passion for each other. Now their paths merge here and there, putting them on opposite sides as her betrayed passion, true to myth, forces her to punish Jason in the most horrible way possible, by depriving him of his sons. If this was true to myth, the little ones would be dead. But Medea, as powerful as Merlin, sends them forward in time. Merlin may seem like he has no secrets from us, as he tells us his story in the first person, but in truth we often find that he is as enigmatic as ever. These things are the very root of what makes these stories so different and so rich. By giving him such a long life, we are able to totally avoid the Arthurian Matter (until Robert Holdstock gets to it, at least) whole enjoying a totally new adventure with the character we think we know.

The author perfectly combines the Arthurian and Greek aspects with ancient history, creating a richly atmospheric place where anything can happen. Undead and Unborn forces rally to attack, forcing the living into the position of killing their ancestors and their children, lest they be killed instead. Goddesses whisper advice to those who know how to listen, much like ghosts themselves, and even ships have spirits. The Iron Grail makes for a spooky read, sometimes, and makes the perils much more interesting.

I think it's also interesting to look at this story and see where he's heading, and how he's translating things. I'm not sure if Urtha is supposed to be Uthur, for his story, at least right now, is so different, and Urtha seems to have slightly more honor than Uthur is granted. Urtha is a likable character, hard, but merciful in some aspects. Niiv's clingy love and desire echo, perhaps, the Viviane who is said to have imprisoned Merlin in a cave, thus keeping him from King Arthur's side. By creating these complex relations and similarities in names, I wonder if Robert Holdstock is actually leading up to the story Merlin is so famous for, or if he's just using the echoes to create his own tale. It makes me extra curious as to how -- or if -- Urtha convinces Merlin to change him so he can have Igraine, how Medea shows up in the story next. Will she be Morgan Le Fey?

It is a land of dark wonder that Merlin wanders, and it is a marvelous gift to be able to follow him in his travels. I look forward to seeing where he wanders next.

Copyright © 2003 Cindy Lynn Speer

Cindy Lynn Speer loves books so much that she's designed most of her life around them, both as a librarian and a writer. Her books aren't due out anywhere soon, but she's trying. You can find her site at

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