It's so strange that I had never heard of this book until my friend Castaway, man of good taste and fruitful loins, blogged about it in his now defunct 50 books blog several years ago (having triplets is a good excuse to stop with the blog, I'd say). I say it's strange, because it was an extremely popular novel and one that would have appealed to my adolescent self for sure. And we were exposed much more to British reading trends in Canada. In any case, I'm glad I found it, because it really was an engrossing and entertaining read and informative as well. (Appropriately, it was part of the minor treasure haul of old books I found high up in a storage room at my job.)
I will explain the informative part immediately, just to make it clear that I recognize this is a work of fiction, based on the Arthurian myths. However, I am so ignorant of this period of history that even the broad lines (about the back and forth between the various British tribes and European tribes, notably the Saxons for control of the the island of Britain) were new to me and really interesting. It's a period I would like to learn more about.
But on to the fun! The Crystal Cave is about the life and rise to power of Merlin. He starts out in a royal house, the son of a queen, but neglected and threatened because he is a bastard, his father unknown, his mother refusing to reveal. In some ways, this is the classic story of the young underdog rising to become a hero. What makes this book so enjoyable is the twist in that classic setup. Merlin's growth to power is through the path of knowledge rather than physical prowess. Furthermore, his role is always to one side of the visible power, in support of the kings who will unite Britain and drive out the Saxons. As he faces challenges and encounters new situations, he learns. He learns medicine, engineering, history and many other practical subjects. Through practice and his own shrewd wit, he also learns politics and the manipulative strategies necessary to survive in these courts of intrigue. All this stuff in the book is immensely enjoyable (especially for the underdog nerds of the world, I can well imagine).
Another interesting aspect is the way magic is handled. It exists, but it is quite subtle and except for a few brief mentions of minor cantrips, is limited to "the sight" and entirely out of Merlin's hands. Partly through accident and later by manipulation, he uses the visions in combination with his own wiles to create the perception that he is a wizard of great power. What is interesting is that all the while, he himself is quite humble and almost passive. It makes for a strange hero. You definitely like him, but you also feel that he is almost a victim of fate at times. It makes for a strange hero.
The last third, until I made it to the very end, began to feel a bit episodic as well. The ending ties it altogether, but I felt it lost a bit of its overall narrative arc and became more about a series of historical advances made by the British against the Saxons and Merlin's role in them. They were nevertheless still quite entertaining and engaging episodes, but it wasn't until the end that it all made more sense in the greater narrative arc. Perhaps if one was already aware of the legend of King Arthur's origins (which this book leads up to and is neatly summarized in an afterword), it would have been clear to what end these episodes were directed.
Overall, a really enjoyable and absorbing read which brings to life this early period of British history, where a culture and civilization was rebuilding itself on top of the Roman ruins and in the face of the barbaric onslaughts from mainland Europe, onslaughts she would face time and time again, always displaying her mettle with that indomitable spirit the great island nation was built on (see what this book does to me!:)).