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.
Compared to Stewart’s other romance/mystery stories, this is rather gentle. It’s more about family being there for you, about everyday magic, about finding yourself at last and fitting yourself into the world. The protagonist, Gilly, really hasn’t had a chance to grow up, or at least to grow out of her parents’ expectations, and here she finds space to do exactly that, thanks to the cottage left for her by her godmother.
It honestly sounds at some point like there’s something more sinister going on — and to be honest, the antagonist’s plan is kind of creepy and weird, and there’s animal abuse that really mustn’t be discounted as harmless that I think kind of gets waved away by the ending. And the fact that the antagonist’s plan doesn’t end up working on the intended target, but does work on an unsuspecting and previously uninterested person… hm. That’s kind of not a happy ending, not a reason to relax. If you’re going to have a world where something like a love potion works, and the protagonist is concerned about it up to the point where she meets the man she wants… Hm.
But really, that’s bringing serious issues from fantasy stories into a primarily-romance story, where it’s meant to be unproblematic. So I let it go. (Pause for musical interlude.)
Not my favourite of Mary Stewart’s books (although honestly, I don’t know what I would pick — maybe The Ivy Tree, or Nine Coaches Waiting?) but fun enough when you take it as a gentle romance story with a little tang of mystery and magic.
It was a grey and drizzly day, this morning — even if it brightened up later — so I felt like turning to one of my comfort reads. Wildfire at Midnight isn’t one of my favourite Stewart novels, and indeed the sense of dread and atmosphere in the book makes it perhaps a touch darker than the others, especially with the moral conflict in the last part where Gianetta thinks she knows who did the crime.
The crime itself is pretty chillingly awful; I can’t remember if any of Stewart’s other novels features a mentally ill antagonist, but that’s how it winds up in this one. And he is pretty unsettling, when you compare his later behaviour with all the rest of the book, and think about what lay under the surface… Not a comfortable thought, certainly. It’s also not the warmest in terms of romance, since that’s barely there — there’s one or two great scenes which establish something, but not enough to really make you root for the relationship to happen.
So overall, definitely still not my favourite. But it’s Mary Stewart: the writing is atmospheric, the heroine is self-sufficient, and the ending is, for the heroine at least, a happy one.
One thing I would like to know, from other readers — there’s a scene early on where Gianetta is talking to the actress, Marcia. They’re talking about the two schoolteachers who are there together: the rather sullen older one, Marion, and the younger one, Roberta. Marcia calls them “schwärmerinen”. That seems to mean something to Gianetta, and she treats it as something scandalous/libellous — what on earth’s the implication meant to be? I have the feeling I’m too young to know context.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday theme is “beach books”. Which is not something I really do, so instead I shall pick the kinds of books I like to relax with. Whether that looks like your beach reads or not, I don’t know!
Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal. Or anything in that series, but the first one is the lightest and closest to Austen and the like.
This Rough Magic, Mary Stewart. Or any of her mysteries — they have an amazing sense of place, it’s like going on holiday without leaving home.
The Rose Garden, Susanna Kearsley. Another one with a great sense of place, this one in Cornwell. It’s not all happy, but the romance is sweet and it has a happy ending.
The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer. I have a huge soft spot for these romances. I loved Sophy in particular, though I’m also a fan of…
The Talisman Ring, Georgette Heyer. Which is more of a mystery/adventure than some of the primarily society type ones.
Magic Bites, Ilona Andrews. Light and compulsively readable.
Have His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers. Okay, I think you need the background of previous books, but I love the first line and the rest doesn’t disappoint: “The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.”
Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers. For Harriet Vane in the prime spot, with her final answer to Lord Peter’s proposals at the end of the book… Plus, tons of smart women in academia.
Jhereg, Steven Brust. It’s a fun first book of the series, it raced past me, and it’s really easy to read.
Soulless, Gail Carriger. Fluffy fun with werewolves.
I don’t think that’d be a bad selection for the beach, right?
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie, so I’m going to borrow an idea that came to me via Guy Gavriel Kay:
“My youngest brother had a wonderful schtick from some time in high school, through to graduating medicine. He had a card in his wallet that read, ‘If I am found with amnesia, please give me the following books to read …’ And it listed half a dozen books where he longed to recapture that first glorious sense of needing to find out ‘what happens next’ … the feeling that keeps you up half the night. The feeling that comes before the plot’s been learned.”
So here’s my ten… Consider this an order if I am ever found with amnesia!
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper. Well duh.
The Earthsea Quartet, Ursula Le Guin. I’m curious as to how I’d feel about The Furthest Shore and Tehanu, reading them for the first time as an adult — originally I read them when I was quite young.
The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay. I was torn between this and Tigana, but this was my first experience of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, and I’d love to come to it fresh. Especially because it’s so influenced by prior fantasy.
Whose Body, Dorothy L. Sayers. Well, all of the Peter Wimsey books really.
Anything non-Arthurian by Mary Stewart. I’m not such a fan of her Arthurian books, but her other books are pure comfort to me. I might need that, if I’ve lost my memory!
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. And Lord of the Rings, obviously.
Among Others, Jo Walton. My first book by Walton was actually Farthing, but that’s less personal. It’d be interesting how much Among Others would resonate with me if I didn’t have the memories I do. (Mind you, neuroscience probably supports the idea that I’d still feel a sense of recognition, even without conscious memory.)
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith. An absolute must — I can’t go without knowing the opening and closing lines.
Something by Patricia McKillip. Just don’t start me on Winter Rose unless you’re willing to take notes about my experience, compare them to my old reviews, and publish a study on unconscious memories of reading in amnesiacs.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.Obviously a whole course of Arthurian literature would be essential — you could start by giving me my own essays on Guinevere and Gawain — including Steinbeck’s unfinished work. But this would make a good starting point, and you could check if I retained my knowledge of Middle English too.
Now I almost want that to happen, so I can study the neuroscience of reading and memory from within! It’d also be interesting to see how I reacted to the Harry Potter books if I couldn’t remember a) reading them as a child and b) the hype surrounding them. And —
Yeah, I’ll stop. Looking forward to seeing what themes other people have gone with this week!
A reread for me, since I felt the need for something familiar during the readathon. It was one of the first Mary Stewart books I read, and it’s one of the more openly fantastical ones. It’s got the usual set up of the plucky young heroine, a landscape that’s important to her or exotic or otherwise worth describing lovingly, and the man she eventually marries. The fantastical part is the telepathy between them, the bond; Stewart uses it well, creating interesting dilemmas and confrontations.
The story of the twins is a little disappointing, because so obvious; we don’t see enough of James’ struggle against his twin to see him as any kind of victim in the situation, and his reaction to Rob and Bryony’s marriage seals that. It gets a little cartoon villain-ish.
Rob and Bryony’s relationship is sweet; I suppose that’s a spoiler, but it’d be hard to review this without mentioning that James is not Bryony’s ‘secret friend’. I really didn’t need all the stuff about how Rob is really an Ashley; it makes the plot that much more convoluted, but ends up reinforcing that whole snobbery about the lady of the family not marrying the kitchen boy.
I’ve behaved myself shockingly well this week — no new books, no comics, and just a couple of library trips. Which is really odd, considering the readathon starts later today and normally I like stocking up… Hoping to pick up Crown of Midnight (Sarah J. Maas) from the library today, but it’s not open yet.
The Mary Stewart books are rereads, which I might revisit during the readathon… although I think Touch Not the Cat is the Stewart book I’ve read least recently, and I’m pretty sure I have a copy around here somewhere. The Secret Museum is one I’ve nearly finished; a fascinating exploration of all kinds of things too precious or difficult to display in traditional museums.
Oh, and I do have a review copy to be joyful over. Frances Hardinge’s latest!
Pretty excited about that one, even though I really need to stop requesting ARCs if I ever want to reach my goal of 80% ratio on Netgalley by the end of the year…
How’s everyone else been this week? Acquired anything shiny and interesting?
Not my favourite of Mary Stewart’s novels, but it’s what the library had when I felt like revisiting. It probably hasn’t really been long enough since I first read them, but ah well: they’re still fun. Stewart was brilliant at establishing a sense of mood and place: a hot French town, dust on the roads, shade under the trees, a cool breeze when you drive fast but sticky and heavy when you’re stuck in traffic… I enjoy Charity’s character, her past, and the fact that despite that tragic past, she uses what her husband taught her about life and love to move on, and Stewart never implies that her love for either the new love or the old diminishes the other.
The relationship itself, well. The constant descriptions of the love interest as dictatorial are exactly right, and one can’t help but think the whole relationship a little off-putting. She’s terrified of him at first, she thinks he’s a murderer, and he’s violent to her, and yet… There’s a passion in the relationship, which is something I do like to see, but his violence was waved away all too easily. A different era, I know… and yet.
The mystery itself, well: it’s melodramatic, all kidnapping and attempted murder and links to Nazism. But it works as long as you’re in the right headspace, and I was, since I’m well used to Stewart’s work.
Mary Stewart’s romance/suspense/mystery type novels have been my go-to comfort reading for a while. Unfortunately, now I’ve finished them all and I’m back to the beginning. I mostly grabbed this from my community library to demonstrate that we should totally keep Mary Stewart on the shelves because people want to read ’em, but I’m pretty sure this was the first of her books I read (other than The Crystal Cave), so it makes sense to start over with it!
I think I appreciated it more, this time. I wasn’t sure what to expect from it before, and I was still in a fairly snobby stage about anything with romance in it, but now I’m happy to sink into Stewart’s romances and enjoy the atmosphere, the way she establishes a sense of place. The landscape is as much a part of this as anything else: dusty, hot, romanticised.
I still stick by the judgement that it’s basically Famous Five for adults, in terms of the mystery. Replace drugs with treasure and you’ve got Five on Treasure Island, basically, apart from the fact that then George marries one of her cousins at the end. There are a couple of reasons why the cousin relationship is creepier than normal here: they were brought up practically as siblings, called “the Twins” by their family; their fathers are identical twins. So in terms of DNA, they’re half-siblings, pretty much, bar any epigenetic modifications. I know that maybe it wouldn’t have been viewed that way then, but it still skeeves me out a little.
Still, for drama and adventure and a glorious atmosphere, plus the fact that at least Charles and Christy don’t have a weird power imbalance to their relationship, I have to give this a higher rating than I did before. The other bad point is, of course, the treatment of one of the only other “on-screen” female characters, Halide: a bigger stereotype of the scheming simple Arab servant, I’m not sure you could have. So not 5/5, even if I do really appreciate some aspects.