by Robert Holdstock
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The magician Merlin has intrigued people since his earliest appearances. Subsequent storytellers have expanded the legend of his life in interesting and contradictory ways. Robert Holdstock, who has previously dealt with legends in his "Mythago Cycle" has decided it is time to turn his own attention to Merlin's story, although years before Merlin connected with Arthur. Many of the mythic themes inherent in the Mythago books appear in Celtika as well.
Holdstock's Merlin is a wanderer who sailed under the name Antiokus on the Argo with Jason. It has been years since Merlin left the Argo, but he is drawn to a frozen lake in the far north, under which Argo lays with Jason still at its helm. Merlin rescues Argo and brings Jason back to life to crew the ship for a new journey. Merlin has determined that Jason's two sons by Medea are still alive and Jason wants to find them.
Celtika could have been a novel simply about Jason's quest for his sons, Kinos and Thesokorus, but Holdstock decided to allow himself the latitude to focus on other plots. Most notable are the story of flirtation between Merlin and his great-to-the-nth-granddaughter, Niiv, and the quest of the Alban king Urtha for the uthiin who abandoned his castle, leaving his wife and children prey to any marauders.
Urtha's castle lies near the strange Ghostlands which have arisen and which no man can successfully enter. These Ghostlands seem to be the beginnings of Ryhope Woods from the Mythago series, but whether they are the same or simply related is left, at this time, to the reader's discretion. It is only after Jason, Merlin and Co. leave Alba to try to find Thesokorus at Thermopylae does Jason realize the Ghostlands may be more important to their quest than originally believed.
Perhaps the most heartfelt passages in the book deal with an elderly unnamed border guard who received his commission from the great Alessandros. This short chapter is a testament to loyalty, honor and duty, but is not maudlin in any way. Furthermore, it helps flesh out the characters of Thesokorus and Bolgios, one of the chieftains of the army Thesokorus has joined. The chapter also shows the casual brutality which is so engrained in human nature.
The general tenor of the novel is very philosophical, although with a modicum of action thrown in. Its pace is slow and building, and, taken on its own, the payoff doesn't quite satisfy the reader's hunger. However, Celtika is billed as the first book of "The Merlin Codex," a cycle which will, one presumes, eventually include the more familiar story of Arthur, although with a very different Merlin. Throughout the novel, Holdstock has dropped hints about the future books. . . Niiv's desire for Merlin, Merlin's long past affair with Medea, and the stories which must cling to all of these latter day argonauts just as Urtha's story is related in Celtika.
Celtika is a novel which doesn't quite stand on its own, but shows every indication that future novels in the "Merlin Codex" will enhance the reputation of the first novel as Holdstock allows the reader to see and understand more of the world he has built.