In the last decade or so Robert Holdstock has created himself a niche as the author of dark, mythical fantasy, set in the present or the recent past and dominated by the images of primeval woodland. Although his new novel, Merlin's Wood, is not a fourth Mythago Wood novel, it again uses these images and themes, interlinking them with the myth of Merlin and Vivian to create a complex, powerful novel.
Martin and his adopted sister Rebecca return to France for their mother's funeral. Both are transfixed by their old home, near the ancient wood of Broceliande and, against their motheršs dying wishes, decide to stay and set up home together. But ghosts from the past, from mythical times, are abroad in Broceliande and when Rebecca gives birth to Daniel, blind, deaf, and mute their nightmare is only beginning.
The first two thirds of this novel are extremely good: Holdstock presents Broceliande, its surroundings and the people who live there with great flair and atmosphere. He is able to give us an idea of their customs and the effect of the ghosts of the forest, which only the children can see, on all the people. His characters are not overly complex, but are still drawn very well, especially the 'core' characters of Martin and Rebecca and the local priest, and his writing of the effects of Daniel's birth and growing up are very moving without being sentimental.
Where the novel does not do so well is nearing the end when Martin confronts the spirit of Merlin. Writing a character as difficult and as popular in all types of fiction as Merlin was never going to be easy and, while this section is no disaster, it does not have the same resonance of the rest of the novel. Holdstock's interpretation of the Merlin/Vivian myth (inspired by the Idylls of the King), however, is interesting and is still much better than most modern Arthurian inspired fantasy.
Merlin's Wood, while complex, as are all Holdstock's most recent novels, it is still an extremely enjoyable read and Holdstock has carefully avoided overpadding it. It is a slim novel and has been written as a slim novel: a discipline many other authors should note. In all, I thoroughly enjoyed Merlin's Wood and consider it a fine addition to the Holdstock opus.
As already mentioned, the novel Merlin's Wood is rather short so Harper Collins have included two of Holdstock's short stories. The first, Earth and Stone, is a fairly simple time-travel story set in stone age Ireland, imagining the lives of the people who constructed the great tumuli and their peculiar religion. While quite slight, I enjoyed it. The second is a strange little tale of selkies, their life cycle and their effect on an isolated old man on a Scots isle. This is more remininscent of later Holdstock and has a nasty bite at the end: good stuff.