|Title: The Crystal Cave|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: Fawcett Crest
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Who was Merlin? Was the famed magician of Camelot and King Arthur's court really a sinister, all-powerful being from another world? Was he truly a prince of Darkness?
Or was he a man with the passions of other mortals? A man with unique intelligence and unusual gifts?
Why was he so feared? How did he come by his occult powers? Why was the crystal cave so important to him?
Mary Stewart's novel brings to vibrant life one of the world's great legends and sheds a fascinating new light on the turbulence and mystery of 5th-century Britain.
In This enthralling work, Mary Steward once more shows her own great wizardry. Again she reveals those qualities of suspense and romantic adventure which have made her one of the world's most widely read novelists.
So, just as a heads up-- I have already read book four of this series (The Wicked Day). I'm going to try and not spoil anything that goes on and will put up warnings if I get into anything about that book. But do know that I read it several years ago and my memory of what on is a little fuzzy, so some stuff might slip in.
Also, I'm not even going to touch on the covers of this series because it has been reprinted so many times with so many pretty covers.
Warning for Spoilers
Probably one of the more famed retelling of the Arthurian Myth and probably one of the most well known modern retellings alongside Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon and Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset. Referred to as the Merlin Trilogy because the first three books followed the life of Merlin and were told in first person from the perspective of Merlin, it ended up as a five book series with book four telling the story of Mordred and book five retelling the Alexander romance.
The Crystal Cave begins when Merlin is a child, living as a disgraced and hated bastard in his grandfather's house and goes up to the conception of Arthur. Probably the biggest twist in this story is that Aurelius Ambrosius is Merlin's father. It's an interesting meshing of Historia Brittonum, where Ambrosius gives the Dragon Prophecy to Vortigern (the reason why, in some versions, Merlin and Aurelius Ambrosius are the same character) and History of the King's of Britain, where Merlin gives the prophecy. It also explains why, in History of the Kings of Britain, Merlin's full name is Merlin Ambrosius. The second big twist is that Merlin doesn't have any magic (at this point-- maybe later) beyond his ability to sporadically see the future. And when he does see the future, he can never remember what he saw and has to rely on other people to tell him was he foretold. This means that all of his clever feats such as raising Stonehenge or getting Uther to Ygraine, were done to trickery or simply being more knowledgeable because he had an amazing tutor as a child (I was really gunning for Merlin's tutor being Merlin from the future come back in time to teach himself, but alas, I don't think that's what happened). The most disturbing twist was Stewart's decision to name Merlin's mother Niniane. Stewart states in her notes that she decided to do this because no other woman is strongly associated with Merlin beyond Vivian/Nimue/Niniane and since there is such a strong connection with virginity and power it clearly points to Merlin being a virgin and Niniane is his mother. This becomes horrifically creepy when (spoilers for Wicked Day) you consider who shows up later and how Merlin is going to lose his powers. Look, the way older man and the much younger girl thing was skeevy enough already, did we really need to throw mommy issues into it as well?
The first, like, third of the book was as boring as all get out. It follows Merlin, who's grandfather hates him because he proves his daughter had an affair with someone while not married and uncle tries to poison because Merlin and his father could potentially be a threat and whose mother just isn't very interested in him, as he grows up. Early on, Merlin finds a tutor who teaches him about anatomy and infrastructure and geology and ecology-- all those things that made someone a witch back then. Also, there's this crystal cave where Merlin first begins to explode his ability to see the future. One day, in the cave, Merlin sees that his grandfather is dead, so he runs away/gets kidnapped and taken to less Britain where he finally meets his father, Aurelius Ambrosius, and the book finally picks up.
The story of Ambrosius' return to Britain and triumph over Vortigern isn't one that is usually told in this much detail (so excited is the author to get to Arthur). So it was nice to see the prophecy of the dragons and Ambrosius' return and death and Uther's kingship actually shown instead of summarized quickly to Arthur later. I especially enjoyed seeing how the Dragon prophecy would play out (since there are no Dragons in this world) and it was definitely the best part of the entire story. It will be interesting to see how the other books in this series plays out now that Stewart has solid legend to work with instead of the small bits and pieces that present themselves when you're trying to tell the story of Merlin before Arthur.
Merlin: The story is told in first person from Merlin's perspective and that I think was a poor decision, because Merlin isn't that likable of a character. I talked in my review of Anne Eliot Crompton's Merlin's Harp how I was really impressed with how distant and alien Niviene was even though that made her impossible to relate to. It's the same thing here although I am a little less forgiving because Merlin is human. The most emotion we ever see out of him is early in the book when his slave is killed. After he arrives in Less Britain and meets his father, he becomes a lot more difficult for the reader to empathize with. Merlin knows his future-- he knows when he's going to die, so he has no fear when striding into dangerous situations. However, those who travel with him are rarely so lucky and he really doesn't seem to give a shit when it comes to taking his servants away from what they love or putting them into harms way when he knows they're going to die. A fair number of folks put their heart and soul into serving Merlin and he does little to nothing to honor that loyalty. I hope Arthur's arrival softens him in the future because this is just too difficult to deal with.
Aurelius Ambrosius: Not a character you see very often in modern retellings, which is a shame because he is usually nothing short of awesome. Roman to the core, Ambrosius spends his whole life trying to win his kingdom back from Vortigern after it was stolen from him as a child and he was forced into exile. Ambrosius is a proud solider, a great leader and promises to make a worthy king. He dies in battle early in his reign. A shame, but at least he got to win his kingdom back first.
Uther: The typical archetype for Uther is that he is a hothead who can't keep it in his pants and this does nothing to deviate from that. Proud and arrogant, Uther is a great commander despite all his faults and wins several battles for his older brother. After Ambrosius dies, Uther becomes king and seems to be doing a fine job of it until he sets his eyes on Ygraine. Then he can't eat or sleep or rule with any sort of efficiency and Merlin is called in to help Uther with his problem.
Vortigern: Current High King when Merlin is a child and the one he helps Ambrosius overthrow. Again, the typical archetype of Vortigern (when he shows up) is ruthless and paranoid and he drew that deck in spades. In his attempts to keep his kingdom secure, he invites the Saxons in and then is forced to spend most of his time reigning them in. This is Ambrosius his opening. In his paranoia, Vortigern keeps several priests and druids to help him with otherworldly problems. When his castle keeps crumbling, his druids tell him to sacrifice a boy with no father over the site. Merlin and his mother are brought in and tell the lie that Merlin was fathered by a demon because that seems safer than the truth at that point. Knowing that the castle is being built on a bad fault line from an earlier trip, Merlin tricks Vortigern into believing that Dragons are fighting underneath (and a real prophecy about the White Dragon (Saxons) defeat by the Red Dragon (Britains) is told along with the coming of the Bear (Arthur)). Merlin uses this to convince Vortigern to flee north, allowing Ambrosius to sweep in and defeat him easily.
Ygraine: I was initially sorely disappointed with her because she was just as hot for Uther as he was for her. In retellings, Ygraine seems to flip-flop between being really weak willed and submissive to the men in her life, which gets her raped by Uther, or so consumed by her desire to have sex with Uther that she doesn't care if kingdoms are destroyed for it. So I was really impressed when she told Merlin that while she wanted to be with Uther, she wasn't willing to become another Helen of Troy for that. So Merlin concocts a plan to get Uther secretly into Cornwall for sex with Ygraine in a way that ensures no one will be the wiser and leaves Gorlois believing the child is his. Of course, Gorlois botches this by attacking Uther's camp and getting himself killed.
Gorlois was the staunch ally of Ambrosius' who worked hard to clear the way for his return. In payment for his loyalty, he gets screwed over by Uther because he has such a pretty wife. Of course, his own hotheadedness played into his death as well. As for Merlin's mother, it is from her that Merlin inherited the sight. She has little to do with him at the beginning of the book, eventually retiring from a nunnery. She gets pulled out of it by Vortigern and lies to him about Merlin's heritage. She and Merlin have something of a reunion before she dies of illness.
I have to add that I was really disappointed with the portrayal of Rowena, Vortigern's second wife of Saxon heritage, in this book. A character known for her ruthlessness and cunning in the original legend, she just kinda sits there in Crystal Cave. She doesn't even get to poison Vortimer and instead someone else close to her does it, maybe. It's just a rumor. Also, she's never named here and is just referred to as Vortigern's Queen (and sometimes not so politely). It was just disheartening to see such strong woman from the legend reduced to this in a book where only a few female characters are named and none have any real agency. Rowena has a ton of agency in the legend and to see that all taken from her hit hard.
Three stars for this book. The beginning was too slow and Merlin was too difficult to empathize with. But there were some promising twists to the legends that Stewart actually retold that I look forward to see where this story goes with the coming of the Bear.