Mary Stewart,
The Crystal Cave
(1970; Fawcett, 1986)

The Crystal Cave, the first book of Mary Stewart's classic Arthurian saga, begins the tale of Merlin, long before he became a magician and a druid. From his conception, the unlikely offspring of a Welsh king's daughter and his enemy's son was more than he seemed.

As a child, he had the Sight and a talent for remaining unnoticed while he gleaned information. An intelligent and quick child, he often knew who was coming before they arrived. Merlin also knew when his uncle offered him a poisoned peach. This ability was dangerous, and led him to study the natural world with Galapas. The night that his grandfather died, Merlin was able to escape the tender mercies of his uncle Camlach by setting a fire to cover his escape.

He fled to Brittany, not entirely under his own power, and met with Ambrosius, a powerful man who planned to depose Vortigern to become King of Britain. Soon, he becomes a friend to Ambrosius, though seen as a rival by Uther, Ambrosius' brother and war leader. With his Sight and further training as a druid and an engineer, Merlin's brains are as vital to the campaign of Ambrosius as Uther's brawn.

On a reconnaissance trip to Wales, Merlin is brought to the attention of Vortigern. There, he proves Vortigern's advisers wrong, and with his engineering skills helps to build a wall that previously would not stand. So begins Merlin's rise as the power behind the throne of Britain. This book follows Merlin's exploits, and ends with the magic and trickery surrounding the conception of Arthur -- the bedding of Uther and Ygraine.

Though Merlin's youth is surrounded in mystery and legend, Stewart crafts these tales into a winning novel that gives the reader a sense of Merlin as a person rather than as an icon of Arthurian legend. Mary Stewart begins her series with a lovely piece of fiction that stands well on its own as well as setting the stage for Camelot.

[ by Beth Derochea ]

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