I was really in the mood to reread one of Mary Stewart’s novels, and I felt pretty nostalgic about The Gabriel Hounds. I thought I’d remember it pretty well, but there was actually a bit in the middle I was more vague on and that I could swear had happened in a different Mary Stewart book… In any case, The Gabriel Hounds follows Christy, separated from her group on a package tour of the Lebanon. Reminded that her great-aunt lives in the area, and surprised by the legends that seem to have grown up around her, Christy resolves to see the old lady — and thus finds herself plunged into a whole mess.
As ever, Stewart had an excellent way of bringing the landscape to life, not just the sights (I can’t imagine those anyway) but the smells and the impressions, and even somehow something of the light and the quality of the air. She’s very good at invoking an idealised, picturesque landscape — and some real nastiness, as well, of course, but that’s more commonplace. She’s not so bad with character, either — spoiled, sharp Christy; kind Hamid, who almost felt like he should be a bigger character or get some much better reward out of the story; poor Lethman…
I should warn readers that the love interests are full cousins, whose fathers were twins; cousin-marriage happens a couple of times in Mary Stewart’s books, but this one is closer than most, and lays particular emphasis on the two growing up like siblings. It might gross you out, so I mention it even though it’s a spoiler.
The actual plot is fairly obvious, and the romance almost perfunctory… but it has a kind of magic anyway.
This week’s theme via That Artsy Reader Girl is “favourite book quotes” — which I’m pretty sure I’ve done before. So instead, I’ll put a tiny spin on it and pick out my favourite quotes from the last ten books I’ve read. I just skipped ones which aren’t very quotable… or which didn’t have Goodreads quotes yet, if I couldn’t immediately think of something.
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. “Perhaps that is what it is like being with other people. Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the world in ways you would rather not.”
Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado-Perez. “It’s not always easy to convince someone a need exists, if they don’t have that need themselves.”
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers. “Books… are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we grow out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.”
Utopia for Realists, by Rutger Brenman. “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”
Nine Coaches Waiting, by Mary Stewart. “There was one thing that stood like stone among the music and moonfroth of the evening’s gaieties. It was stupid, it was terrifying, it was wonderful, but it had happened and I could do nothing about it. For better or worse, I was head over ears in love.”
Driftwood, by Marie Brennan. “Paggarat was less doomed than they wagered, not because of how long it lasted but because of how it went out. Because of Aun and Esr, smiling at each other until the end of the world.”
The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu. “Do you see how much power you have when you act without fear?”
The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. “I do not sleep because I am not only afraid of the monsters at my door, but also of the monsters my own mind can conjure. The ones that live within.”
The Last Smile in Sunder City, by Luke Arnold. “I like books. They’re quiet, dignified and absolute. A man might falter but his words, once written, will hold.”
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chamber. “We cannot blame ourselves for the wars our parents start. Sometimes the very best thing we can do is walk away.”
I didn’t love all those books, but those quotes capture something that did work for me from each!
I had really fond memories of Nine Coaches Waiting, and while I wasn’t wholly wrong that I enjoyed it a lot, it wasn’t as great as I remembered — perhaps because I found that the tension was drawn out just a little too long, and the fiendish plot of the bad guy a little too convoluted. It took a while to get to the payoff of the scenes between Linda and Raoul as they find their understanding… though the payoff is pretty fun, classically dramatic as it is.
Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. Linda is the protagonist, a half-English half-French girl orphaned quite young, and travelling to take up a post as a governess to a small boy in France. There’s something a bit weird about it all, including the suggestion that they don’t want her to be able to speak French… but she needs to escape her boring life of teaching in England. The boy she becomes governess to is shy, unhappy, orphaned himself — and his guardians don’t seem to like him, and have a rather proprietary attitude to the house and grounds he actually owns, and which they only take care of during his minority.
It takes quite a few suspicious accidents to really put Linda on the alert, though, and in the meantime she falls in love with the son of her charge’s guardians. I felt like, reading it this time, this relationship really wasn’t given room to breathe at all; that’s the case with all of Mary Stewart’s books, to be honest, and I don’t know why it struck me so much here — perhaps because, at over 400 pages, you’d expect a bit more depth.
What Mary Stewart always did well was evoke a sense of place, and she does beautifully here, from the house to the woodland to the little village; I can never “picture” anything, but she doesn’t just describe anyway. She can also make you feel a place, and it works here, from the woodlands to the house to the little villages.
Still a very enjoyable read, but not as great as I’d remembered, anyway; perhaps it’s best if you read it all in one go, which this time I didn’t. Maybe I just had too much time to quibble!
It’s Wednesday again! So here’s the usual check-in. You can go to Taking On A World Of Words to chat with everyone else who has posted what they’re reading right now!
What are you currently reading?
Fiction: I’m neck-deep in Kushiel’s Dart, and just finally getting to the bits which I always struggle to read because aaaaaahhhh nooooo. I forget how long it takes Joscelin to really start being amazing! I haven’t really been taking part in the readalong discussions, because my brain is just tired and I’m probably reading too much at once.
Speaking of which, I’m also reading The Fifth Season, and working on my shelf of abandoned books. I’m closing on finished with my reread of Nine Coaches Waiting, which is still fun but… I don’t know, the melodrama of this one doesn’t work for me as well as (say) Madam, Will You Talk? Perhaps it’s also because it’s longer.
Non-fiction: I’m finally back to reading Eric H. Cline’s Digging Up Armageddon, which I stalled on because I wasn’t in the right mood before. I’m enjoying the details of the digs and the team a bit more this time, and closing on the end… despite feeling that the team had so many questions left to answer. Gah.
What have you recently finished reading?
The last thing I finished was Beneath the World, A Sea, by Chris Beckett. It was… okay. I actually originally said it’d be something my wife was likely to love, but I think it floundered around a bit and then petered out, despite the original promise. It lacks any kind of resolution — I didn’t necessarily need an explanation, but something better than the sense the characters are running away.
What will you be reading next?
I’m planning to work more on the shelf of abandoned books, but there’s still quite a bit of scope there. I could get back to my reread of The Lost Plot, by Genevieve Cogman, or of Feed by Mira Grant. Or I could finish a book that’s new to me, like Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird.
Probably I’ll pick two and chip away at them by setting myself a goal of reading a minimum of five pages a day. It seems to be the key to unlocking a book I’m struggling with — with all of them I’ve suddenly had a moment of getting back into it and finishing it all in one go.
I don’t know why I keep coming back to this book: there’s something about it. The sense of place, of course — that’s a given in Mary Stewart’s work. But the lead male character in the romance is just so… for a good chunk of the book he’s violent and unpleasant, and there’s a whole sense of dread about him ever catching up with Charity. The moment when they end up on the same side feels jarring — I don’t feel like the reader is prepared well enough for the switching of sides.
But on the other hand, there’s Charity and her attitude to her relationship with her late husband. Like this bit, just — ahh:
Past and future dovetailed into this moment, and together made the pattern of my life. I would never again miss Johnny, with that deep dull aching, as if part of me had been wrenched away, and the scar left wincing with the cold; but, paradoxically enough, now that I was whole again, Johnny was nearer to me than he had ever been since the last time that we had been together, the night before he went away. I was whole again, and Johnny was there for ever, part of me always. Because I had found Richard, I would never lose Johnny. Whatever I knew of life and loving had been Johnny’s gift, and without it Richard and I would be the poorer. We were both his debtors, now and for ever.
It’s not just a whirlwind romance with a weird love/hate thing going on, and nor is just the mystery and adventure. There’s also this maturity towards relationships underneath that… yeah. I think that’s a big part of why I enjoy Charity — plus, of course, her fast driving and her determination to take care of David, for all that he’s a stranger to her.
Although this fits into the Arthurian world constructed by Stewart in The Crystal Cave and the books that followed it, The Prince and the Pilgrim is really a separate story which has perhaps more in common with her romances. She takes a short incident from Malory and expands on it, and dwells on Morgan and her wicked seductive ways (yawn) into the bargain. It’s not a bad story, and her gift for evoking atmosphere and landscape shines through, but I found it very light. The most intriguing aspect involved the references to the Merovingian kings and the way it wove Alice’s story in with a real historical context.
The ending is more or less inevitable, even if you don’t know the original story, and Stewart’s embellishments are mostly pretty tame. A fun light read, but not really a return to the world of The Crystal Cave in anything but name (and that devotion to Morgan being a sexualised, predatory witch).
If you know Mary Stewart’s work, you know what to expect from this one — which is entirely why rereading her books is comfort reading for me, of course. It has danger, a plucky heroine, a mystery involving smuggling and, possibly, murder… and a handsome young man with whom, of course, the heroine falls utterly in love. Not without some rocky bits along the way, including not being entirely sure which one of the potential love interests is actually a bad guy.
The bad guy in this book gives me chills at times, in his utter amoral self-absorption. There are moments when you think he might be decent, but no. Still, I find the heroine’s relationship with both men delightful — she stands up for herself, gives as good as she gets, and weighs the evidence to come to a logical conclusion. No “but he seemed so nice” from this lady.
In terms of the usual sense of place and atmosphere you get with Stewart’s books, this one isn’t the best: it’s set on Corfu, and there are a couple of scenes early in the book which really do work. At other times, the condescension to the locals is just a bit too much, even allowing for the work as a product of its time.
Best character: the dolphin, of course.
Solidly enjoyable, featuring one of Stewart’s more resourceful heroines.
A new-to-me Mary Stewart! Alas that it’s only a novella. Still, it’s characteristic of her work in the fine and detailed sense of place, in the sudden sweet relationship between the male and female characters, and in the atmospheric setting. Most of it would really have benefitted from a longer book: I really wanted to see more of this post-cataclysmic scene in Lanzarote, the lava beds and lack of trees… it’s not how I imagine the place, and it’s a fascinating glimpse of a whole different time — a time when tourism on Lanzarote was barely beginning, because volcanic activity had scoured the island.
The relationship, too… I can suspend my disbelief somewhat, but it would’ve been so much better to have a full novel of this, a full novel to explore the story and the development of the relationship. Just two brief encounters seemed very little.
I misremembered this one somewhat, as I’d expected more time spent in the castle that actually only comes in about halfway through. It does speak well of Stewart’s usual ability to evoke an atmosphere; the castle/hotel works perfectly, and so does the circus. There’s not as much of a sense of landscape, though; it feels like it could be set anywhere, at least until the ending with the night time chase and the train lines on the mountain.
I remembered all too well why the romance in this bothered me. The couple are already married, and not estranged, but it turns out that he’s been keeping a big secret. I did like that she played along, didn’t blow his cover — Stewart’s heroines are often better at this sort of thing than you’d expect, even if it is in a rather ‘I’ll do anything for my man’ sort of way. I don’t like that he’s hidden all this from her and she thinks that’s okay, that they barely talk about it before he’s forgiven; I hate that suddenly he gets to beat people up ‘for’ her and that’s romantic. Gah. Bad taste in my mouth. And worse because she likes it.
Not my favourite Stewart romance at all; it lacks a lot of the charm. The saving grace is the horses: that story is poignant and enough to get invested in. The ending is, thus, perfect. Just keep the main couple out of it and finish with the horse.
Arrrghhh, this book! Okay, on the good side: Stewart knew the Arthurian material well and handled it with confidence, often bringing in small details in ways which were a delight to spot (but which didn’t particularly harm the narrative if you didn’t spot them). And it’s an interesting take on Mordred: a loyal son to Arthur, once he knows about it, taking up much the same sort of relationship as between Merlin and Ambrosius, or Arthur and Merlin. His emotions are for the most part really well done: his ambition, his determination, how he fights against his fate and ultimately serves it.
But. Arthur. In the last quarter or so of The Wicked Day, Stewart breaks her entire previous characterisation for Arthur. He becomes irrational, forgets who he can trust, takes advice from the wrong people — ignores the advice of people like Nimue, whose power comes from Merlin. He forgets what’s important — forgets important plans that he made — and just gives way to suspicion and slander. He endangers everything, and for what? For suspicions that just chapters before he knew were unfounded.
The way I read it, Stewart broke her own story’s backbone by insisting that everyone (except the women) remain blameless. She didn’t want to blame Arthur or Mordred or Bedwyr, so she palmed some of it off on Gawain’s rash nature, some of it on Mordred’s latent ambition, and… some on Arthur being an idiot in ways he hasn’t been at any other point in the series. She couldn’t resist heaping calumny on the women: Morgause committed incest knowingly with her brother, and then wanted to commit incest again with the son born of that union. What the hell? The other books well-established Stewart’s near-inability to handle the women of the Arthurian mythos (more surprising given the relatively active and capable heroines of her mystery/romances), but this is just… desperate. It reeks of pushing everything off onto the female characters, but she had to do it because she decided that it “didn’t make sense” for Mordred and Arthur to do things they do in some branches of the mythos — in some kind of wrong-headed attempt to marry it all together, or to follow the example of others (cough, Malory) who didn’t manage to bring it all together. It just won’t go.
And I can kind of get it. I did enjoy the little references I noticed, for example to other sons of Arthur. We want to admire the Arthurian heroes, and we want the best of all of them: the just and strong king, the heroic seneschal, etc, etc. (And I was badly served in this, since Gawain is an impetuous idiot given to murder in this version, and also my favourite knight in the general mythology.) But Stewart tried to get everyone out ‘alive’, or at least their reputations (few of them actually survive, which is kind of a relief given the contortions she went through in The Last Enchantment to keep Merlin alive), and that… doesn’t work.
It’s so frustrating, partially because I get the impulse, and I liked the relationship between Arthur and Mordred here. The treatment of women aside, I quite enjoyed the first three quarters, or even four-fifths. But. But. Stewart broke her own story and characterisation because she couldn’t make a hard decision, as far as I can see, and the story is critically weakened by it.