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.
Stormy Petrel isn’t my favourite of Mary Stewart’s romance/suspense stories, though I do love that the main character is a science fiction writer, a poet, and a don at Cambridge. Her relatively self-sufficiency is great, and there aren’t too many damsel-in-distress moments. The romance is relatively light, and doesn’t treat us to the ridiculousness of marrying a guy you’ve only just met — sometimes it works for me, in Stewart’s writing, but all the same, I prefer a lighter touch. Especially when it means that the romance isn’t forced, which this would’ve been; kind of like in Rose Cottage, where the romance seemed to come in at the end to round things off.
As usual, the sense of place is great and makes me almost want to visit this area off the coast of Scotland. On the other hand, the midges sound like a pretty solid deterrent.
The Last Enchantment really suffers the most from the fact that it’s written from the point of view of a supporting character. Merlin’s an epic, iconic figure, but he’s not Arthur — and this version emphasises this even more, with Arthur’s seemingly endless heroism, patience, temperance and sensitivity. I love the Arthurian story too, but it feels like Stewart shielded almost all the characters from harm — even, in this case, some of the female characters, despite the misogynistic to ambiguous treatment in the rest of the series. She has surprising sympathy for Guinevere, particularly, considering she had no mercy for Morgause.
Stewart weaves in an astonishing number of the disparate stories — the two Guineveres, Nimue/Niniane/Vivien, Melwas, etc — but, almost because of that, it lacks richness to me. It feels like everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, especially with the way she shields her characters from the consequences; we’ve got Nimue and Merlin in a love story, and Nimue does indeed bury Merlin alive, and yet she didn’t mean to. And Merlin is buried alive and ‘dies’ there, but… he doesn’t die.
The writing is still good, and it was entertaining enough, but… this series falls short of excellence.
Rose Cottage is a quiet mystery/romance, not too heavy on either, with no dramatics of the sort you find in The Gabriel Hounds or Touch Not the Cat. It’s all fairly quiet and peaceful; a restful sort of book, with only brief moments of unease, no madly evil people (though one at least who is very flawed), no great tragedy, and an ending that brings everyone neatly together in a perfect reunion.
Given that I’d definitely choose the word “gentle” to describe it, and the romance is just barely there in the last half, this isn’t the most pacey, exciting story. It’s a cosy one, of homecoming and heart-healing and family, needing and wanting no heroics. It’s a post-war story, but the war is just a shadow in the background; it’s a family mystery, but the important thing is not so much the mystery, the not-knowing, but almost the end of the story, when people come together.
This all might sound like faint praise, and it’s true that Rose Cottage isn’t one of my favourite of Stewart’s books. But it’s enjoyable, and especially good if you don’t want high drama, just some village life and a happy ending.
Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books are certainly very different to her romance/mystery ones. It’s much more the world of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset than the sort of world her heroines inhabit in the modern stories: one of uncertain magic and prophecy, of blood and hatred and death. And it comes out much less positive about female characters. There are few prominent ones, and even mentions of women tend to be dark portents and shadows on the future Merlin foresees. But I do love the Welsh background, the Welsh names, the way that the different races of Britain are all represented here and are all Arthur’s subjects.
It’s doubly difficult to read this with any sense of suspense, though. First, Merlin knows what’s going to happen, at least broadly, and secondly, it’s the Arthurian legend. You can do surprising things with it, but Stewart sticks fairly close to the sources, which leaves very little room for surprising anyone who knows the source texts well. She plays the tropes relatively straight, too, and telegraphs all the usual causes of strife in Camelot well in advance. Arthur isn’t even acclaimed as king yet until the very end of the book, and already there’s foreshadowing for various betrayals. I really must look up Bedwyr’s involvement with Gwenhwyfar more — several modern tellings align him with her, and I can’t remember what might spark that.
Still, Stewart’s writing is good, and the sense of atmosphere she brings to the more far-flung settings for her romance/mystery stories is equally strong here, in the cold and damp corners of Britain. Her writing in this book reminds me a lot of Sutcliff, which can only be a compliment.
I do hope she’s more subtle with Morgause, Morgian and Gwenhwyfar, when they appear properly, though.
I’m wondering if I ever really say anything different about Mary Stewart’s books. They’re fairly formulaic, really: fairly independent young woman meets young man who may or may not be her cousin, there is some dramatic problem to be resolved, and they resolve it while falling in love, often improbably fast or due to some supernatural intervention (as in Touch Not the Cat and Thornyhold). They’re better than they sound, though: the atmosphere Stewart produces is amazing, and quite a lot of her female characters are actually quite strong and certainly have agency. The main character here, for example, spends most of the story getting pushed to one side by the male characters who don’t want her to get involved — but she’s the one who really sorts everything out.
This isn’t my favourite of Stewart’s books by far, but I think I enjoyed it more this time than I did the first time. Partly because yay, familiar comfort read, no doubt. Nothing wrong with that.