Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reader review: The Crystal Cave

I finally read The Crystal Cave! For years I've meant to, and been slightly ashamed that I haven't before. I mean, I love Stewart so much that I've spent many, many hours creating a website about her, and I haven't read her most critically acclaimed novel? (We won't go into an argument now about why her suspense novels did not receive the literary attention her Arthurian books did.)

What kept me from reading the book for so many years is the fact that it's about King Arthur. I know that story, and I know it doesn't end well. I have very little patience with tragedy. But I should have known that Stewart would still deliver an enjoyable tale. And actually we don't even get to meet Arthur in TCC--it is wholly Merlin's story.

The book opens when Merlin is six years old. He is the bastard son of the daughter of one of the lesser kings of England, in Wales in the 5th century. His mother kept his father's name an absolute secret, even from Merlin, and the rumor has started that he is the son of the devil or a demonic spirit. And we soon learn that Merlin does have a bit of magic about him: he has the Sight, which occasionally gives him visions. He is taught by a local wise man, not only about things mystical, but also about science and medicine.

When Merlin is twelve, his grandfather dies and his uncle comes to power. The already precarious political situation crumbles further. Merlin has always had some protection in the fact that as an illegitimate child his claim to the throne (something he has no interest in) has never been good. But his uncle sees him as a threat, so Merlin has to run for it. He goes to Brittany and joins Ambrosius, a Roman Briton who is preparing to invade England. Ambrosius takes Merlin in as a trusted advisor, and Merlin is instrumental in Ambrosius's successful campaign and his eventual crowning as the first King of all England.

If anyone is wondering where in all this is the Arthurian story you know, at the end of the book Merlin is advisor to Ambrosius's brother Uther, who fathers Arthur. TCC is the first book of a trilogy, followed by The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I'm assuming we see more of Arthur in those two.

I admit I have little experience with Arthurian stories, but this felt much more like historical fiction than fantasy to me. The historical detail is so interesting, and Stewart obviously spent a lot of effort on research. It's a time period I know very little about, after the Roman occupation when Briton and Saxon leaders were fighting it out. The Roman names are a bit confusing (esp. Vortigern and Vortimer--I couldn't keep them straight), but all the history is presented very clearly. It's all fascinating, and though complex, never overwhelming.

So while the history is realistic, the fantastical and mystical elements are still very present, though they are wrapped up discussions of the many religions of the time. Much like the political situation, religion too was a fragmented matter--a kind of smorgasbord of British druidism, Christianity, and the eastern cult of Mithras that the Romans adopted and brought to England. Merlin is very sure that his power comes from god--one god, a single power, whatever you call him--but he dabbles in whatever religious experience comes his way in order to learn all he can. Really interesting.

Merlin is a fascinating character. A bit of a loner, keenly intelligent and curious. TCC is a coming of age story more than anything else, and we see him develop his intelligence and his powers. And that is his total ambition; he has no dreams of ruling himself. He is self-effacing and humble, though his story is such a big one. One of my favorite lines in the book is when Ambrosius says to him: "No, Merlin, you will never make a king, or even a prince as the world sees it, but when you are grown I believe you will be such a man that, if a king had you beside him, he could rule the world."

I admit I was hoping for a bit of a love story tucked in somewhere, but Merlin is really almost asexual. Not that he doesn't feel the natural urges, but he suppresses them because he just knows that that type of relationship would interfere with his destiny, though that sounds overly grandiose. But his other relationships (with his mother, Ambrosius, teachers, and friends) made up for the lack of a traditional love story and served to personalize and warm up the story.

The style of this book is very different from Stewart's suspense novels, but one element that is the same is the vivid description of setting. It's one of the things she's most famous for and for good reason. And the language is simply beautiful.

Final thoughts: I still like Stewart's suspense novels better, though this has nothing to do with the quality of the books. They are just more my style--a love story satisfies me like little else. ;) But this was a great read. If I had any doubt, I would know it was good by the length of my review. The Crystal Cave gave me lots of talk about and lots to think about! I'll be reading The Hollow Hills soon.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday trivia

Which Mary Stewart novel's original working title was Murder for Charity?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Full blurb for The Crystal Cave

Most of the blurbs we've posted on the Novels page for each book come from the jackets of the William Morrow hardcovers, the first editions published in the US. They're much more complete than those put on paperbacks and reissues, and I think they're very nicely written and do an excellent job of matching the tone of the books.

Of course, that meant we had to locate a copy of each edition with dust jacket intact, not always an easy thing to do. A few weeks ago I finally located a hardcover copy of The Crystal Cave with a jacket, so I've posted the fuller blurb to the website. Yay for library sales. Here it is:
Almost everyone knows Merlin as the dark, brooding figure mysteriously associated with Camelot and King Arthur’s court.

But who, really, was Merlin? Was he the enchanter of fairy tales, the magician in the black robe and pointed hat and wand? Or was he the king and prophet of old legends of Brittany and Wales? How did a man reputed to be the bastard son of the Prince of Darkness, and condemned to death as a child of the Devil, become the chief architect of the first united Britain?

Mary Stewart’s answers to these provocative questions form a spell-binding novel that catapults the reader into fifth-century Britain – a land uncertainly emerging from Roman rule and divided by conflicting loyalties, political and spiritual; a land riddled with rumor real and planted, and spear-alert with superstitious fear.

Into this strange world was born Merlin, bastard son of Niniane, daughter of the King of South Wales, and an unknown father. The novel opens in Wales when Merlin is seven, and closes in Cornwall, at Tintagel, with the begetting of Arthur.

Mary Stewart is one of the most widely read novelists writing today. Her great gift as a storyteller, her enviable flair for making places and action come alive have never been more clearly defined than in The Crystal Cave.

This is not a story to be read once, however eagerly, and then forgotten. Its imaginative truth will stand the test of time.

We are still missing Morrow blurbs for Madam, Will You Talk, Thunder on the Right, Airs Above the Ground, and The Moon-Spinners. If anyone has hardcover copies of any of these and wants to transcribe the blurb and send it to us, we'd greatly appreciate it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

More fab old covers

Fellow Mary Stewart fan Kerry sent me a whole slew of great old covers that I'd never seen before. I've added them to the cover gallery. A couple of my favorites:

A Coronet mass market edition of This Rough Magic from the early '60s. I love this style of cover--though that girl looks a bit too passive to be Lucy. And that's a dead body washed ashore right behind her. Shouldn't she be doing something about that? And she looks like she's wearing a toga. Maybe it's supposed to be the outfit she borrows from the Corfuote (?) lady who takes care of her after she washes ashore?

And look at this copy of The Ivy Tree! I'm not sure of the date on this one, but look at Mary/Annabel's hair. It's like a helmet. Maybe early 70s?

Many thanks to Kerry for scanning these for us!

Slightly appalling, but mostly impressive

I got a laugh out of this: a craft blogger, LazyTcrochet, has taken an old copy of The Moon-Spinners, torn out the pages (gasp!), and made it into a purse. She asks book-lovers not to be offended, saying that the pages were torn. I told her in the comments that I think it's a sort of tribute to Mary Stewart. It is a very pretty object she's made, though I don't think I'll be giving any of my copies similar treatment. :)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Where to start...

Never read a Mary Stewart book? You might look at her list of books and wonder which one to start with. I could just say that they're all so good you could start with any of them. But that probably doesn't help much.

First thing to decide is, do you want Arthurian historical fiction or romantic suspense? If it is the former, then your answer is easy. Start with The Crystal Cave -- it's the first in the series.

Now if you want a romantic suspense things get a little trickier. They are all stand-alone novels, so you really can start anywhere. We created this little quiz, which is not at all scientific, but might be a fun way of telling you which to start with. Here are my results:
Which Mary Stewart novel should you read?
Your Result: This Rough Magic

British actress Lucy Waring believes there is no finer place to be "at liberty" than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare's The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.

Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide ...

Madam, Will You Talk?
My Brother Michael
Wildfire at Midnight
Nine Coaches Waiting
Touch Not the Cat
Airs Above the Ground
The Ivy Tree
Which Mary Stewart novel should you read?
Make Your Own Quiz

You might look at which books are people's favorites. My personal favorite is This Rough Magic. Julie's favorite is Wildfire at Midnight. AAR's poll of people's favorite Mary Stewart books is here -- Nine Coaches Waiting got the first slot there, as well as being the current winner in our poll here at the blog.

You can look at our settings map and decide where you'd like to read about. I especially love her books set in Greece.

And my last word of advice is to consider when the book was published. Mary Stewart published for over 30 years -- those published earlier I've found to be more suspenseful and exciting. Those published in the 80s and 90s are a bit more tame and gentle. Thornyhold is my favorite of her later books.

Any visitors -- what was your first Mary Stewart book? I have to say that I don't remember which one I read first. Might have been The Ivy Tree.