It’s late, this post, and I plead two things: my idiocy (genuinely) and the bit where I volunteered at World Fantasy Con 2013 and had a whale of a time!
Fifth century Britain is a country of chaos and division after the Roman withdrawal. This is the world of young Merlin, the illegitimate child of a South Wales princess who will not reveal to her son his father’s true identity. Yet Merlin is an extraordinary child, aware at the earliest age that he possesses a great natural gift – the Sight. Against a background of invasion and imprisonment, wars and conquest, Merlin emerges into manhood, and accepts his dramatic role in the New Beginning – the coming of King Arthur.
It’s a bit hard to categorise The Crystal Cave. It’s based on history as much as it’s based on Arthurian myth (and you’ll get bonus references to characters and events if you’re at all familiar with Monmouth), but it’s not entirely either of those. There’s a healthy dose of fantasy added to the mix, making it a strange mixture of the familiar bits we know and the twisty surprises that come from focusing on a character who isn’t usually the focus of the stories. Stewart copies Monmouth’s method when it comes to filling in the gaps in the narrative with as much weird and wonderful as she can, and though it’s flawed, the trilogy is a good addition to the heaps and heaps of Arthurian fiction out there.
This is a good read if you enjoy beautiful writing and slow, reflective plots that go nowhere fast but give you time to savour the elegance and atmosphere. It’s somewhere between Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin Hobb – although Merlin’s got far more character than FitzChivalry in my opinion (yes, it’s okay to hate me, and yes, I still love the Robin Hobb books and look Merlin gets snarky in a way Fitz never does and that is what sways me). This is all a way of saying that, yes, it’s slow and stately and ultimately your enjoyment of this depends on whether you have a pretty plastic attention span. For me it was too slow. It also wasn’t consistently thematically elegant like GGK, or utterly absorbing like Robin Hobb, despite the occasional flashes of brilliance.
And while we’re on the topic of satisfaction, everyone’s said it, but I need to chime in: isn’t it weird to read a book by a woman in which the female characters are so paper-thin they could be faxed? I wonder how much of that was Stewart and how much was editing. Reading The Crystal Cave has given me a thirst for the Marion Zimmer Bradley books again, which were so overtly woman-centric and inclusive and made me cry without, it seemed, ever really trying.
When I read it as a 12-year-old I remember being completely wrapped up in it and enjoying it from beginning to end, from the weird magic-that-wasn’t-magic (always enjoyed the Stonehenge explanation later in the trilogy) to the early attempt to poison a child (which I still think is the best scene in the book). It’s not without its flaws. It’s certainly one that – despite the old man writing about his youth framing device – works better for younger readers, despite the slow pace. There’s an elementary nature to it that works better for those who haven’t read around the field and built up certain expectations.
Overall, I’m glad I read it again. What I enjoyed about it years ago is still enjoyable and it should be required reading for any fans of the BBC TV series, for instance – but it is flawed, and needlessly so, because Stewart is clearly a skilled author. Her other works should definitely be sought out by anyone else who found this book/trilogy unsatisfying – I can’t help but wonder what could be made of this if it were updated with a modern eye.