Starting with his watershed novel Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock came to specialize in a kind of reverse extrapolation of myth and history, taking mythology and folk stories and following them backward through time to earlier, original forms that, while stemming entirely from the authors’ imaginations, are thoroughly believable and feasible. Not content, like many of his contemporaries, to merely retell or update myths and fairy tales—placing them, for example, in modern urban contexts—Holdstock instead looks for the roots of the myths themselves and then adapts them to his own purposes.
Holdstock has expanded the basic story created in The Hollowing to create here both a multilayered tragedy and a commentary on the primal power of language and its role as a kind of ur-magic, the control of nature and reality through the power of the human mind.
The first section of the novel has something of the flavor of a ghost story (Holdstock has written a number of horror novels, as well as fantasy and science fiction), with its creeping sense of foreboding and slow unfolding of information that culminates in the revelation of possession. Holdstock has a knack for creating simple but disturbing images that linger with the reader, and both the decline of Rebecca and the unsealing of Merlin’s tomb are moments of sublime disquiet.
It is in the second section of the novel, the story of Merlin, that Holdstock’s gift for...
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