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Kingdom of the Grail    by Judith Tarr order for
Kingdom of the Grail
by Judith Tarr
Order:  USA  Can
Roc, 2000 (2000)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The author finds unusual settings for her historical fantasies and Kingdom of the Grail is no exception to that rule. She spun this story by combining the later portion of Merlin's legend with the epic poem The Song of Roland. In Tarr's version, Roland is a descendant of Merlin and his demon father. As a boy, Roland found Merlin bound for centuries in his forest prison, 'cage of wood and water, earth and air.' He learned magic from him and swore to do whatever necessary to achieve the enchanter's release.

Roland is the Count of the Breton Marches and as an adult joins King Charles of Francia as one of his twelve Companions. His closest friends are Olivier, himself a mighty warrior and the wise Archbishop of Rheims, Jehan Turpin. Roland is a shape changer with yellow eyes and can fly on falcon's wings. He wields powerful magic, though his is weak in comparison to that of the adversary, a sorceror who has been in search of the Grail 'for all the long ages of his life.'

This sorceror, Ganelon, has positioned himself as a counselor close to King Charles and busily manipulates events and an envious puppet prince to achieve his goal. He sows suspicion in the army that Roland is a witch. But Roland finds an ally in the beautiful Saracen healer Sarissa and her cat Tarik, who is much more than he appears to be. Though initially suspicious Sarissa comes to love and eventually to trust Roland.

The legend of Roland unfolds, intertwined with the tales of Merlin and of the search for the Holy Grail. Roland wins the magical sword Durandal and uses it to fight the king's battles in Spain. He and the other Companions in the army's rearguard fight heroically against hellspawn in the infamous pass at Roncesvalles ... to the death.

But this is not the end of the story. It continues at the castle of Carbonek in the kingdom of Montsalvat, the kingdom of the Grail. There its defenders continue to battle against high odds to defend the sacred relic, and the reader meets other legendary figures like Huon of the Horn and Parsifal the Grail-king.

Tarr does her usual outstanding job of weaving ancient legends together into a lyrical and enthralling new tale, full of magic, action and romance. She takes two tragedies - Merlin's long imprisonment at Nimue's hands and Roland's fall at Roncesvalles - and injects hope into their endings. Don't start reading this one late, you'll be up all night as I was.

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