I read this book more than 20 years ago, and remember liking it, so I was worried whether it would hold up to a critical re-read as an adult. This book combines a lot of things that normally are huge turn-offs for me. It’s low-magic fantasy with plenty of war and politics, embedded in a quasi-historical real world setting. Any one thing on that list is often enough to make me completely mentally check out. Luckily in this case the story and characters are well-written and compelling, and the Arthurian legend is both beloved and familiar but also flexible enough to withstand many interpretations. The combined effect is a book that I routinely stayed up hours past my “bedtime” for, eagerly devouring chapter after chapter.
The Crystal Cave is the first book in a series, and the whole story takes place before the birth of Arthur. Instead, it follows the life of Merlin from his childhood as a royal bastard with an unknown father, through his mundane and magical education, and sees him coming into his powers as an advisor and a prophet. One of the things this book does so well is it forces us to see Merlin as a human being, one whose magical gifts aren’t always controlled. We see his seemingly unending need for information and knowledge, and how much of his magic and prophesy are really just a combination of soaking up information and combining it with intellect to suit his needs. He’s a man who has a small amount of magical power, but uses his wits to leverage that into a larger-than-life reputation and political clout.
I know the shape of the myth of King Arthur but not all the details, so I don’t have the clearest sense of what is “canon” and what is unique to this retelling. What I do know is that this book places the coming-of-age of Merlin into a historical context that feels authentic from my admittedly fuzzy point of view. The details of daily life, the scope of the battles and military intelligence, the medicine and engineering were all touched on with a level of care that drew me deeply into the world and held me there. It may not be completely accurate, but the world felt alive and real on every page.
Honestly I was surprised that The Crystal Cave was listed by itself, instead of as the full series like so many other works on this challenge list. It left me wondering if the quality of the later books isn’t up to the level of this one, or whether this was just the most well-known of the series. I loved this one enough to want to keep reading. Honestly my only complaint is that it wasn’t available on Kindle, which made it harder for me to read in bed until the middle of the night like I wanted to.
TL;DR: An origin story for Merlin and the beginning of the King Arthur Legend.
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
Rating: 5/5 stars
Verdict: Excellent read, if you’re interested at all in the Arthurian mythology I would highly recommend.
Next up: The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks