THE IRON GRAIL
by Robert Holdstock
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Iron Grail is a follow-up to Robert Holdstock's novel Celtika, which combined the Celtic legend of Merlin with the Greek mythology surrounding Jason and the Argonauts. The Iron Grail continues the story several centuries later, although with many of the same characters as well as a new cast of supporting characters.
Holdstock uses mythic language throughout the book which has the strength of capturing the feel he is attempting to achieve, but also has a tendency to distant the reader from the action. Holdstock's use of language contributes to a more lackadaisical feel to the novel, rather than the in-your-face action so common in many epic fantasies. Because of this the story takes a while to get started and it takes a while for the reader to fully be grabbed by the novel.
Holdstock is able to get away with this pace because The Iron Grail is not merely an epic novel, although it is, it is also a novel of family. Mostly the family of Jason, the Argonaut, but also the relationships of Merlin. And this is not the Nigel Terry Merlin of "Excalibur" or the Merlin presented by T.H. White in The Once and Future King, but a Merlin who has a mysticism all his own and a tie to the people and the land that Holdstock imbues with the sense that it is a necessary part of Merlin's character, even if most authors don't seem to understand it.
Perhaps the real strength of Holdstock's writing in The Iron Grail is the manner in which he seemlessly combines the Hellenic Jason myth with the Celtic legend of Merlin. Just as the Celts and the Greeks inhabited the same world, Holdstock is able to combine their legends and magic in a way which does not seem obvious, or functional, but makes it work within the context of his story.
Taken with Celtika, the first novel of "The Merlin Codex," it seems clear that Holdsotck eventually intends to introduce the elements of the more traditional Arthurian myths into this world. The Iron Grail does begin the process, but in ways which are not entirely evident or expected. Characters introduced in the book may very well become the Arthurian heroes in the final novel, The Broken Kings, although that is mere supposition and Holdstock, who has always shown an interest in mythological archetypes, could easily take his characters and their situations into an entirely different and unexpected direction.
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