It’s fair to say that the books chosen for the Hodderscape review project have taken me by surprise. I was, I suppose anticipating them to be a little more cutting edge. Instead we are drifting slowly back in time. First there was the Eyre Affair, a book from ten years ago. Then the thirty year old The Shining, and now a book written before I was born. Which these days means it’s pretty old.
I must confess, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading The Crystal Cave. For a start I hadn’t heard of it, which though it may vainglorious, made me think it couldn’t be much good. Secondly, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with tales of Arthurian legend. I always feel I should enjoy them, but more often than not they let me down. My interest in Arthur and his Knights reached its nadir with the execrable BBC series Merlin. (I keep trying, because I know people who like it, but I can find nothing to recommend it.) So a whole novel about Merlin’s formative years did not appeal.
Once I started reading, things looked up almost immediately. The setting is more historical than chivalrous. 5th century Britain, Celtic settlements and Anglo-Saxon warriors. The positioning of the novel put me in mind of the Pendragon cycle by Stephen Lawhead, books I loved when growing up.
The story is slow and unpretentious. The novel feels slightly dated, but not to its detriment. I imagine a modern treatment would have been grittier with more blood, guts and cursing. This is a more subtle affair, with gentle political manoeuvrings and lyrical description. Yes there are battles and fights, but they are almost a by-product of Merlin’s grand plan. If one exists.
Merlin in this book is not a fire wielding mage, a caster of spells. He is a wise young man, in touch with the earth and possibly spirits. He channels feelings, sometimes catching glimpses of the future or distant events, but he is controlled by his power rather than having mastery himself. Much to his King’s chagrin Merlin cannot augur at will. This is a nice aspect of the book. Merlin is a man of strong, if malleable religious conviction, and the reader is left to wonder whether his power is down to magic, divine intervention or just simple coincidence and intuition. Much of Merlin’s influence is derived from superstition and exaggeration of his deeds by credulous peasants.
The novel overall is a quietly paced reweaving of British history and mythology. It didn’t blow me away, but it did keep me in thrall to the very end. I’m glad to have read it as part of the review project, but will I pick up any of the others? Maybe, but with so many book clamouring for my attention, Stewart’s Merlin trilogy may struggle to be heard.