Tuesday, 17 July 2007

‘Celtika’ – Robert Holdstock (Gollancz Books)


One thing I haven’t got the hang of, just yet, is reviewing ‘Book Three’ of a trilogy without having read the other two first. That’s a lot of story to try and get your head around! Robert Holdstock’s ‘The Broken Kings’ has been sat on the shelf (for a while now) for that very reason so I thought I’d buy myself a copy of ‘Celtika’ (first in the ‘Merlin Codex’ series) and start from there. Having read ‘Celtika’, I have to say that I’m not sure whether I’ll read any more…
Any wizard or sorcerer that you find in a fantasy book will inevitably derive from one aspect (or another) of the Merlin ‘myth’, you can’t get away from the man! Holdstock takes the myth in a bold new direction and begins to tell the story of Merlin’s youth and the times before he met King Arthur. I use the term ‘youth’ in its loosest sense, as Merlin is already thousands of years old when we first meet him! He is on a quest to find his friend Jason (as in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’) and put right a wrong that took place in Antiquity. Merlin’s magic will be in great demand but every time he uses it he will have to surrender some of his carefully protected youth…
I am in awe of the concept behind this book, King Arthur’s ‘Merlin’ was always a mysterious figure and ‘Celtika’ fleshes out some of the background information in a way that appears consistent with what we already know. I also really liked the way that Holdstock used characters like Merlin and Jason to bridge the gap between Antiquity and the Dark Ages, I thought it was a great idea and very much like a more sober version of the superhero ‘team ups’ that you find in comics.
Having said all this though, I found it a real shame that the tone Holdstock employs does not do the story justice (considering it’s potential). It’s a very dry and scholarly affair that does not adequately reflect the passions that you know must be running through the characters. I also thought that some of the more descriptive passages could have been pruned, allowing the plot to take centre stage. It’s almost as if Holdstock wrote a book in the classic ‘saga’ style but forgot that his audience was from the 21st century… It was a real chore to read and what made it worse was that flashes of brilliance only served to remind me how good the story could have been.
A great concept but flawed in it’s execution, I may still read ‘The Broken Kings’ but there isn’t a lot to recommend it so far…

Four out of Ten.

3 comments:

DBDARWIN said...

GRAEME,
I UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN BY "OLD STYLE" OF WRITING, BUT I THINK WHAT HOLDSTOCK HAS DONE IS ACTUALLY COMBINE OLD STORYTELLING WITH NEW STORYTELLING; THAT WAY IT IS FRESH AND NOT SOME REINVENTION. I PERSONALLY FIND HIS STYLE UNIQUE, THOUGH YOU DO HAVE TO STICK WITH IT. SIMILAR STYLES ARE WRITINGS BY JAMES BLAYLOCK AND TIM POWERS, TWO OTHER GREAT FANTASY WRITERS.

Graeme Flory said...

Hi,

Sorry I didn't notice your comment earlier. I'm not sure I agree with you on the whole point over Holdstock's style of writing but I would certainly agree that you have to stick with it if you are going to get anything out of the book...

Shamus said...

I really like Holdstock's writing style and I would agree that there is something unique about it. His sober tone makes me feel that there is something sinister under the surface of even ordinary events. He has a way of pulling you into a dream state that paradoxically somehow feels more real than a lot of fantasy writing.

Have you read Mythago Wood. That is a wonderful and terrifying book by the same author.