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The Iron Grail
Earthlight hardcover £17.99
review by Debbie Moon
A strange collision of destinies is about to occur in future England, on the border separating the ravaged Celtic kingdom of Alba from the Otherworld, land of the dead and the yet to be born. Urtha the king is returning from a costly mission; but in his wake comes his onetime ally, Jason of Greek Land, resurrected to seek out the son his abandoned lover hid from him by travelling into the future. The link between them is Merlin, the seer without a past; but by joining them in the war against the Otherworld, and the search for lost children, he will risk the loss of his powers, and even murder at the hands of a friend...
Holdstock's fantasy, second in the Merlin Codex series, mixes myths and heroes with aplomb, weaving Classical and Celtic traditions into a heady world of prophecy, arcane ceremony, and guilt-riddled relationships between the living and the dead. Here, Merlin is a restrained, cautious man - a thinker in a society fixated on action, a wanderer who fits in everywhere and nowhere. Appropriately, then, the book's greatest strength is its rich background of ritual and tradition. A genuine air of magic pervades the narrative, particularly the powerfully imagined border landscape, where the real and the unreal become one.
Despite its recurring themes of loss, betrayal, and the widening gap between growing children and their guardians, the narrative lacks any real sense of urgency. The occasional battles are convincing, but often resolved with a strange ease, as if Holdstock had suddenly lost interest and decided to let the good guys win without further ado. There's nothing wrong, of course, in emphasising the spiritual dimension of the heroes' journey, particularly since this is really Merlin's story. But to deliberately write about two great military heroes, and yet give them no worthy enemy to test themselves against, does seem almost perverse.
If you're looking for action, then, best try elsewhere. Though it doesn't deliver all it promises, The Iron Grail is a thoughtful fantasy, rich in detail and interpersonal conflict, convincingly conjuring up a world of heroes that may never have existed, but certainly should have.
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