There’s still a lot about The Crystal Cave that bothers me, but I think, on balance, I liked it better now than I did the first time I read it. As I’ve said, it’s Misogynistic Merlin, which is my least favourite flavour — you have some clear-headed, quick-thinking, powerful women, but then you have lines like this: “Duchess and slut alike, they need not even study to deceive.” And the whole bit about weak female magic and Merlin needing to be a virgin and blahblahblah. Could definitely have done without that.
Still, not having recently read Sword at Sunset, or anything else of Rosemary Sutcliff’s, this managed to have something of that flavour without the narration, and the characterisation of Ambrosius, being too much overshadowed by Sutcliff. I know for sure which one is the better book, and which one I enjoy more, but this doesn’t stand up so badly when it’s not right up against something by a master like Sutcliff. I got more into the relationships this time, though I wish Merlin didn’t leave such a trail of servant characters dead in his wake. I liked Cerdic, liked Cadal; their deaths because of their faith in Merlin were pretty hard to take. I know he does acknowledge a measure of that but still, gah. The relationship between Merlin and Ambrosius really does work, though, the slow realisation of what’s going on there, and their closeness. Also the fact that Merlin isn’t forced to be a warrior (though that makes the ending, where he is, doubly odd).
The mix of magic and science here is a little weird. The standing stones are raised using math, but the prophecy really is second sight; the dragons are just symbols, but the vision is real. It’s like a step between out-and-out fantasy and realism. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I tend to prefer things that go at it a bit more unequivocally! If Merlin can see the future, why is there no other magic in the world?
Anyway, I’m going on to the other books now, though I seem to recall from summaries there’s more flavours of misogynistic Merlin awaiting me.