I found book one of the Merlin Codex, Celtika, a frustrating tease of a book: a good novel that barely skimmed the surface of the fascinating riches it contained, a whole other world lurking just off-stage. In my review of that volume I also pointed out that it surely marked the opening of another landmark series in modern fantasy.
The Iron Grail confirms that prediction: both the novel in its own right and the series of which it forms the second volume clearly rank among the finest works of Robert Holdstock. It also goes a long way in filling in some of the gaps present in the earlier volume. It is, quite simply, one of the books of the year.
The Iron Grail picks up where Celtika - rather abruptly - left off. King Urtha is returning, gravely wounded, from Greek Land; Jason, too, is heading away from Greek Land, drawn to the land of Urtha; and Merlin is travelling ahead to Urtha's sacked fortress, a place with a mysterious past, now occupied by the invading armies of the Dead. Here, he finds the Three Fates, Mornga, Mornbad and Skaald, awaiting him with news of what lies ahead: conflict, treachery and a ship that is more than a ship and which will carry him to his grave.
Urtha's children have been consigned to the dubious haven of the land of the dead, Ghostland. This has saved them from the invasion of Urtha's fortress home, but now there are upheaval and escalating dangers in Ghostland, traumas to which Urtha's children "are both key and cure". It is these upheavals that lie at the root of the invasion of the fortress, the Dead crossing the river that separates Ghostland from the world of the living.
Jason is looking for one of his long-lost sons; Urtha looking for his children and trying to reclaim his fortress; but it is down to Merlin to find an explanation for what is happening in this strange land.
The layered complexities of Holdstock's work can make it hard reading at times - after a few exhilarating pages you have to take a break. So much incident is alluded to, mentioned in passing and then we move on - a richness weaker writers of the fantastic would never dare squander. This richness is one of the author's greatest strengths, and one that, bizarrely, is not common enough in the genre. In Holdstock's best work, as it is in The Iron Grail, the complex depths of plot and allusion and time and place are combined with a real narrative drive - it is, quite simply, a page-turner.
Incidentally, in Merlin Holdstock has created a character of fascinating depth and insight: a man who survives by avoiding commitment, juggling the passionate commitment to fellow humans that so draws him against the entirely selfish desire to protect himself from the damaging effects of using his own charm. Holdstock really has made Merlin his own, and not many authors could claim that of such a widely-used stock figure of the genre.
There are always genres within genres: within crime you have noir, police procedurals and other sub-genres; within SF there are hard SF, planetary romance, space opera and others. Within fantasy, I think it's entirely fair to say that there's a sub-genre that is simply good fantasy: genuine fantasists, using the tools of the fantastic to create, explore, excavate ... working away among the shelves full of extruded fantasy product. Books by such authors as Holdstock, Gentle and Miéville must come as a shock to many readers - but a healthy one.
This sounds terribly patronising, to author and reader: fantasy that's Good For You. But then literature as a whole is good for you. Holdstock is a genuine fantasist, and will always risk being lost in that genre within the genre. He writes fantasy that makes you care, think, wonder, thrill, and also, sit up turning the pages late into the night.
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© Keith Brooke 7 September 2002