26 November 2013

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart [book review]

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart book cover
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
Published by Hodder
Paperback - 464 pages
This edition published February 2012
Review copy given by publisher
Part of the Hodderscape Review Project
Back in 2011, the NPR fantasy/sci-fi flowchart recommended that I should read The Crystal Cave, so I was pretty excited to get the chance to read it as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.

The greatest thing about The Crystal Cave is that it's a faithful retelling of the original Merlin story by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but makes the plot more palatable for a modern audience.

Merlin is brought up as a the bastard grandson of the King of Maridunum (Carmarthen), until political intrigue forces him to run away and into the hands of fate. He ends up dealing with a number of would-be kings before his gift of prophesy allows him to usher in the Once and Future King - Authur Pendragon.

Stewart downplays the magical aspects of Merlin's early life so that The Crystal Cave reads more realistically than the epics that we're used to when it comes to Merlin's exploits.

The novel plods along with very little conflict, and that I think is its greatest flaw. Merlin himself admits that he's the tool of the divine, and his actions are guided by whichever god is watching over him, but it seems as though Merlin floats from one scene to the next without any conflict to liven things up. The only really exciting thing that happens, occurs at the climax of the novel. By then it was too little, too late for me.

Stewart's characterisation of Merlin's early life is well executed; there's a lot of personality behind the boy beyond the "royal bastard" persona. Merlin is an outcast who is treated with suspicion and dislike by those around him, and this forces him into looking out for himself. However, as the years progress, Merlin becomes more bland as a character as he turns into Merlin the wizard, tool of the gods.

The supporting cast are much more interesting. The conflict between the would-be kings of 5th Century Britain; Vortigern and Ambrosius, then later Uther Pendragon, is interesting from a historical perspective, and their characters seem to have more of a personality than the protagonist.

Overall, I was disappointed with The Crystal Cave. I had quite high hopes for this Arthurian epic, but it felt flat and unexciting. The history geek in me likes Stewart's take on 5th Century Britain (she'd certainly done her homework) but that's about as far as it goes.

About the author
Jamie Gibbs is the bearded, bespectacled geek who runs Mithril Wisdom and drinks too much coffee, usually at the same time.
You can follow him on his Google+ or Twitter profiles for a daily dose of fanboy discourse.


  1. I love Arthurian legend so will be looking this up on Amazon. I can't remember where I got the idea that Merlin lived his life backwards, but haven't come across it since. Do you know?

  2. Little conflict can make for a dull book.


Thanks for commenting! Feel free to ask any questions you like here; I'll do my best to respond to every comment here.

Super bonus points for creativity and snark, but anything spammy of offensive will be removed (I'm looking at you!)