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Robert Holdstock
Gollancz, 342 pages

Robert Holdstock
Born in 1948 in Kent, Robert Holdstock worked in medical research before becoming a full-time writer in 1975. He has written more than 20 novels under his own name and various pseudonyms, and has received both the British Science Fiction Award and the World Fantasy Award for his work. He died on November 29th, 2009.

Robert Holdstock Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Broken Kings
SF Site Review: The Iron Grail
SF Site Review: Celtika
SF Site Review: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn
SF Site Review: The Mythago Cycle

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

  Personal Note: Robert Holdstock died just as I was about to read Avilion for this review. Rob was a friend for many years, and his untimely death was hard to take for everyone who knew him. When I was able to read the book I found intimations of mortality everywhere, from the epigraph taken from Tennyson's Idylls of the King -- "But now farewell, I am going a long way" -- to the last chapter in which a dead person is welcomed home. Such an awareness of death is undoubtedly in the book, but its prominence may be apparent only because of the context in which I read the novel. All I can do is offer my personal reading fully aware of the particular circumstance that surrounds it.  

To call Avilion, as the cover does, "the long-awaited sequel" to Mythago Wood, is both true and misleading.

Mythago Wood, first published in 1984, was, with the possible exception of The Lord of the Rings, the most important contribution to the literature of the fantastic to appear in the twentieth century. It rewrote the rules, redefined the relationship of fantasy and mythology, and brought a toughness and intellectual rigor to a genre that all too often descends into the twee and the banal. It presented the origins of our stories, the formative characters of our myths, the creations of our imaginations not as pretty and sedate beings but as rough, crude, sexually charged and physically dangerous. This was fantasy not as comforting adventure but as a direct challenge to everything we believe about the stories we tell ourselves.

It was also a setting, or perhaps "concept" would be a better word, to which Robert Holdstock returned throughout the rest of his career. There were three novels and a novella in the Mythago Cycle between Mythago Wood and Avilion, Lavondyss (1988), "The Bone Forest" (1991), The Hollowing (1993), Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1997), but even the non-Mythago novels such as Merlin's Wood (1994) and Ancient Echoes (1996) are suffused with the themes of the Mythago stories, and the Merlin Codex (Celtika, 2001; The Iron Grail, 2002 and The Broken Kings, 2007) is full of characters, settings and conjunctions of mythic figures that inevitably recall Mythago Wood. All are linked by a host of elements such as setting (ancient woodlands predominate, though all have a distinct awareness of landscape), mythology (not a simple, coherent, fully-formed structure but an evolving web of story that is in a constant process of change), and above all time (acknowledged by the part that a copy of the H.G. Wells novel, The Time Machine, plays in this story).

Holdstock's use of time is key to my entire understanding of his work and it is something I have written about at length elsewhere, so here I will simply summarise: time, in all his novels from the early science fiction right up until Avilion, is not a straightforward thing that advances in a coherent, chronological manner. Instead, time is fluid, ever-shifting, like a river that bends, cuts new channels, leaves behind ox-bow lakes, breaks into new parallel streams. The mythagoes in his major sequence, the conjunction of British and Greek mythological characters in the Merlin Codex, are all symptomatic of this. Characters from different times, even the same character from different evolutionary stages, co-exist and interact. Some mythic figures have been abandoned by history, their origins and stories long forgotten, but they still survive in crude form within Ryhope Wood, while the more modern sensibilities of the twentieth-century characters who venture into the wood are likely to conjure later, sophisticated versions of the same crude figures usually found there.

None of Holdstock's novels from Mythago Wood onwards has proceeded by a straightforward chronological path, and the comprehension of time that guides this entire sequence dictates that there can be no single structure linking the various books. Lavondyss and Avilion are two names for the same place, the heart of Ryhope Wood where the origins of myth, the bases for every other inhabitant of the Wood, is to be found. Yet the Lavondyss reached by Tallis in Lavondyss and the Avilion reached by Yssobel here are clearly and distinctly not the same place. So, although both Lavondyss and Avilion have been described as the sequel to Mythago Wood, the title could as easily go to The Hollowing or to Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, or to none of them. All belong within the conspectus of time and myth that is the very stuff of Mythago Wood, but all inevitably depart from that origin story in crucial ways.

The claim of Avilion to be taken as the sequel to Mythago Wood rests on the fact that it returns to Steven Huxley, our guide on that first visit to the wood. Steven and the form of his lover, Guiwenneth, who returned, reborn, from Lavondyss, now live deep in the wood in a Roman villa they have made their own. Their children, Jack and Yssobel, are now grown, but though they are close their paths are diverging. Jack has followed the Red or more human path and longs to leave the wood to discover the outside world; Yssobel has followed the Green or mythago path and her route takes her towards the heartland of the wood, to Avilion. But though we pick up on the same central characters and their descendants, though the conflict between Steven and his brother Christian again becomes central, this is hardly a straightforward continuation of the earlier novel. When Jack does reach Oak Lodge, now swallowed by the fringes of the wood, and then makes a daring venture into the nearby town of Shadoxhurst (an extraordinary episode in which Holdstock brilliantly makes the ordinary seem an alien environment), there is little to indicate that the world has moved on perhaps 20 years, into the late 1960s. And in Shadoxhurst, Jack meets an important character who must have been there in the time of his father and his grandfather, and yet their paths seem never to have crossed. In other words, this is no more a direct sequel to Mythago Wood than any of the other works in the sequence, but yet another tangential approach to the same central mystery.

Jack makes the journey to Oak Lodge in order to conjure up a mythago of his own grandfather, George Huxley, a radical change in the concept of the mythago. From George, he hopes to gain the clue to help him on an even more perilous journey, for Yssobel has disappeared and Jack must venture into the heart of the wood to find her. Yssobel, meanwhile, has a quest of her own, for Guiwenneth has left the villa with a shadowy troop of horsemen. While Steven, as ever, waits behind, Yssobel, aided by the mythago of a young Ulysses (echoes of the Merlin Codex?), sets out to rescue her from Avilion once more. She enters this supposedly impenetrable place by, in effect, stealing the death of an avatar of King Arthur, taking his place on the barge steered across the lake by the dark queens who will, for a while at least, become her allies on this quest.

But Guiwenneth has gone willingly with the horsemen, they are her route to fulfilling a quest of her own, final revenge upon Christian. This Christian, not quite the same as the character in Mythago Wood or Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, is now the leader of an immense ghostly war band who travel through time to change the course of battles. The three quests, Guiwenneth's hunt for Christian, Yssobel's hunt for Guiwenneth, and Jack's hunt (accompanied by a human boy stolen by the ancient Iaelven who travel by secret underground ways also reminiscent of the Merlin Codex) for Yssobel, inevitably come together deep in the mysterious realm of Avilion.

The novel, as I have indicated, is full of a sense of endings. The various stories of the Huxley family that have been central to so much of the Mythago Cycle reach closure here. Avilion itself is associated with the realm of the dead, and that pivotal moment in the entire matter of Britain, the death of Arthur, is also the pivot around which this story turns. Central characters die or, which amounts to the same thing, face the ending of their story. Even the weather, winter following upon winter, the dying of the year, seems to suggest a natural cycle coming to its end. If Mythago Wood began this whole fabulous sequence with the exciting idea of myth imagoes being born from the dark recesses of our imaginations, Avilion concerns their dying, their fading from memory. We cannot now know if Robert Holdstock intended Avilion to be the last word in this cycle, though in a realm where time itself is fluid and uncertain there can be no final ending just as there is no definite beginning. All we can know is that Avilion matches the grandeur and the invention of the Cycle at its best, and if there has to be a last word this is as good as we could hope for.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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