Merlin's own story, unencumbered (as yet, anyway) by Arthur and company, set in the sixth century and cast as a struggle between the Prydein (Celtic Britons) and encroaching Germanic tribes: from the British historian and descendant of you-know-who. King Ceneu, lamenting the glory of days past and seeking some method of repelling the warlike Iwys (Germanic invaders), decides to consult Merlin in his burial mound. Accordingly, up Merlin rises to tell his tale: son of the witch Ceridwen (he conceals the identity of his father), he is intelligent and fully capable at birth. Cornwall's King Custennin fears the child and determines to kill him, but Merlin escapes into the sea, where he becomes a fish and for 40 years is tutored by the Salmon of Wisdom. Eventually he is caught on a weir and is fostered by King Gwydno's son Elffin and the renowned bard Taliesin. Several magical interludes later, during which Merlin learns how to step outside of time itself, and loses an eye in exchange for the gift of prophecy, King Maelgun of Gwynedd will put together an alliance to attack the Iwys occupying southern England. You see, 150 years ago the Iwys were defeated and confined by the Emperor Artorius (Arthur) and forced to pay tribute. Now they're refusing to pay; furthermore, their King Cynurig and his army are reportedly fighting in Italy. Merlin now endures a journey through Annufn (Hell), where he meets and falls in love with his sister, Gwendyd (just about the only feminine interest here); receives warnings of treachery; and is charged with protecting the kingdom of Prydein above all else. Bulging, seething, impressively researched, but also meandering, erratic, and undiscriminating; Tolstoy works in every single incident and scrap of lore known, no matter how contradictory or insignificant. The upshot, while energetic and historically intriguing, is a formidable, distracting, odd-tasting stew.