After a brief prologue, set in part 700 years before this novel's setting and in part only shortly before its real beginning, Robert Holdstock's new novel Celtika -- his first since 1997 -- opens in the frozen land of Pohjola, a region submerged in the darkness of the long polar night.
Antiokus, Jason's sidekick on his quest for the Golden Fleece, is drawn to the Screaming Lake, which takes its name from the ghostly screaming of a man in a sunken ship. Antiokus, now going by the name of Merlin, is convinced that he knows who that man is, and why he still screams after seven centuries in the lake's depths. If, as he suspects, the screaming man is Jason, then he must do his best to raise the sunken ship, Argo, to the surface and bring its captain back to life. Merlin is a driven man, bringing with him the truth of long-past events: that Medea did not, in fact, kill Jason's sons -- despite the evidence of Jason's and Merlin's eyes. The boys lived -- they live -- and Jason and Merlin must find them.
In Celtika, Holdstock takes the grist of so much modern fantasy product -- classical legend; the all-too-often cod-mediaevalism of Arthur, Merlin et al -- and re-shapes them to his own ends. It could easily be seen as a safe move -- knock out a cosy fantasy series with all the standard furnishings -- and yet could just as easily be seen as a big risk: one of the leading contemporary fantasists tackling full-on both the greatness and triteness of the genre.
It could also, perhaps, be seen as a logical progression, exploring this material regardless of what others may have done with it. In his Mythago series, Holdstock deals with the stuff of myth as it persists in archetypal forms into the modern age; here, he goes back to the raw material, both crafting the mythos anew and giving it a gritty realism. As you would expect from this author, this is not a challenge he takes lightly, and Celtika is by no means a light read: people hurt in this book, and they struggle to understand, and survive in, their world.
One of the central mysteries in Celtika is the ship herself, the Argo. Even 700 years ago when first built, Merlin had sensed something wild and ancient at her heart -- a mystery he had never plumbed. Now, refurbished and given the spirit of a local forest goddess, the mystery persists: Argo is alive and very much a character in this novel -- a wild and unpredictable presence.
After rebuilding Argo they head south, crewed by an assortment of warrior-types who had previously gathered at the Screaming Lake in search of enlightenment or treasures. Soon, they -- and the story -- are sidetracked when they visit the island of Alba, home of one of their crew, Urtha. All is not well here, and Urtha's home fortress has been routed and most of its inhabitants have vanished. There is clearly something going on that is outside the normal: supernatural forces at play, possibly a consequence of Urtha leaving his land the previous year. And that fantastical something is never fully explicated: Merlin and Urtha involve themselves enough in it to intrigue, and then they pull back as the story returns to its original course.
That is both Celtika's greatest weakness and strength: there is an awful lot more in this book than ever reaches the surface. Celtika is clearly a part of something far bigger and richer than a single novel, and in this first volume many of the wonders of Holdstock's world-building are barely skimmed. The fantastical backdrop is thus, at worst, an opaque tease, although at best it is magical and enchanting: the Ghostworld that is forever threatening to over-run the land of Alba, is particularly intriguing. Holdstock appears to have made a conscious decision not to explicate all this at first introduction, but rather to let its rationale unfold in the telling -- even when that telling won't take place until subsequent volumes, as clearly flagged towards the close of Celtika.
Celtika is, on the surface, the story of the ancient and revived Jason and his expedition with his new argonauts to find his sons. The real story, however, is the steady unfolding of Merlin's origins and strange nature, one of a chosen few who have followed the Path around the world since ancient times, keeping himself young by conserving his powers, being miserly with his magical powers.
As Celtika closes, Jason's story is still unresolved but it is clear that it is Merlin's story which will form the centre of what will surely be another landmark series in modern fantasy.
Normally when I work on a review I pass through two distinct stages: as I start to read I find myself wondering what on earth I'm going to write about the book; and then at some point it suddenly slots into place -- I have a handle on the book, and the structure of the review and the issues it raises tend to cohere.
Celtika was different. When I finished this novel I still didn't know quite how to approach it: not an easy page-turner of a book to read (although by the end I was, indeed, turning pages at an accelerating rate), and certainly a book where there is far more going on under the surface than is immediately apparent. So I wrote up my notes and put them aside for a while.
And the book wouldn't leave me alone...
Celtika is a rich and complex book, and it is by no means flawless. But its flaws are ones of omission and teasing: where the book may, at times, come across as incomplete and unfocused, it does so because it is part of a greater whole.
I suspect that it can only really be judged in the context of the Merlin Codex series, of which it is the opening instalment, and so this review must conclude, like the book, unsatisfying in its lack of a strong conclusion.
The firmest conclusion I can offer is that I am eagerly awaiting volume two. I will, as someone once said, be back.
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© Keith Brooke 23 June 2001