The Last Enchantment

Merlin's harp is focus of front cover of the Mary Stewart novel The Last Enchantment.
Merlin plays his swan song on this harp.

The Last Enchantment is the final book in Mary Stewart’s trilogy about how Arthur became England’s king, subdued the Saxons, and ruled from Camelot.

As in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, Stewart tells the story from the vantage point of Merlin, the prophet/wizard who is cousin to Arthur and his mentor.

Merlin has lost his youthful stamina and he’s losing his ability to foresee the future.

Having lived either alone or among men all his life, without his prophetic gift Merlin is at the mercy of women.

Arthur has just won the crown. He must fight to keep it and to beget a son to carry on his line.

Arthur also has to worry about his half-sisters, who have dynastic ambitions of their own, and about his bastard son by one of those half-sisters.

For the first 400 pages of the novel, Stewart spins a fascinating yarn.

She seems then to realize she has too much history still to cover, so she sidelines Merlin while she advances the story.

Then brings him back, gives him a “while you were out” message, wraps up the story, and closes the covers.

The result is 80 percent enchantment and 20 percent disappointment.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1979. 538 p.
1979 bestseller #07 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Touch Not the Cat

The mistress of atmospherics, Mary Stewart, set Touch Not the Cat on a decaying estate—complete with a moat and a maze—held in trust for the elder of two identical twins.

cat figure in mosaic tile is on dust jacket of Touch Not the Cat
This mosaic tile cat should not be touched.

When Ashley Court’s owner is killed by a hit-and-run driver, his 22-year-old daughter, returns to England to settle the estate.

The manor house is being rented by American tycoon’s family, but Bryony’s father gave her an adjacent cottage that’s not part of the trust in which she can live.

He also passed down to Bryony “the Gift”—telepathic ability— handed down the generations ever since it led to an Ashley ancestor being burned at the stake.

Bryony has been communicating telepathically with a relative she thinks of as her “phantom lover,” but she has not yet discovered which of the Ashley men he is.

I’m not sure how Stewart’s characters got from the end of the penultimate chapter to beginning of the final one, but she certainly paced the novel well and kept my interest.

Stewart’s characters are just well enough developed for her to move them through the maze—both figurative and literal—of the story.

Plot, not personalities, is the draw in this semi-spooky thriller.

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1976. 336 p.
1976 bestseller #9. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Hollow Hills tells Arthur’s tale

The Hollow Hills is Mary Stewart’s follow-up to her bestseller The Crystal Cave.

A drawing of a sword and  colors behind the title words are only art on The Hollow Hills' dustjacket.
There’s no magic on this cover.

Stewart picks up where that story ended, giving just enough background that people who didn’t read the earlier work aren’t lost but dedicated Stewart readers aren’t bored.

Within days of his birth, Arthur is given into Merlin’s care. Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, had sent the Duke of Cornwall into battle and then bedded the Duke’s wife while the Duke was dying on the battlefield.

Arthur is a bastard.

Uther hopes as his queen Ygraine will bear sons untainted by bastardy, but Uther wants Arthur kept safe just in case he has no legitimate male heir.

Most of The Hollow Hills relates Merlin’s travels between the time he secrets the baby away and the time he comes back to return Arthur to his father as his successor. Those chapters allow Stewart to display her considerable landscape word-painting skills.

The Hollow Hills has less hocus-pocus than Cave and better developed characters (although Merlin, his youthful sidekick Ralf, and Arthur each have about a quarter century’s more maturity than appropriate to their chronological ages).

Stewart isn’t to my taste, but The Hollow Hills gave me more to admire than others of her novels that I’ve read.

The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
William Morrow, 1973. 490 p.
1973 bestseller #6. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Crystal Cave: Dark and dull

The Crystal Cave is Mary Stewart’s hallucinogenic tale of Merlin, the shadowy figure of Arthurian legends and post-Roman history.

Dust jacket of the Crystal Cave has black background with type colors suggesting light reflected from crystals.
First edition dust jacket of The Crystal Cave.

Myrddin Emrys, later to become known as Merlin, is the bastard son of the daughter of the King of South Wales by an man whom the daughter refuses to name.

When the story opens, Merlin is six years old, has the vocabulary of an Oxford don and absorbs every word he hears.

Political intrigue abounds and Merlin hears more than is good for him.

In his early teens, Merlin is kidnapped and taken to Brittany where he has one of his first visions, which brings him to the attention of the man who turns out to be his father. Ambrosius is preparing to invade and make himself King of all Britain.

Merlin joins him.

Even the dust jacket writer couldn’t come up with a summary of the plot of Cave. I won’t even attempt one.

All sorts of implausible events happen to Merlin, all of which fit perfectly with Stewart’s implausible characterization of him.

Merlin is not only a seer, but a skilled engineer, astronomer, physician, diplomat, politician, and dirty tricks artist.

Cave is not an historical novel, nor a fantasy, nor a romance, but a mash of all of them.

This long, convoluted tale is best avoided by all but die-hard Mary Stewart fans.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
William Morrow, © 1970. 514 p.
1970 bestseller #4. My grade: C-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Gabriel Hounds: Suspense with a hashish haze

The plot of The Gabriel Hounds is one that Catherine Morland would have loved, had that Jane Austen creation lived in the 1960’s drug culture.

Christy Mansel is on a package tour of the Middle East when she bumps into her second cousin, Charles, who’s on a business trip.


The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
M. S. Mill Co. 1967, 320 p. 1967 bestseller #9. My grade: B.

Christy and Charles decide to look up their Great Aunt Harriet, an eccentric recluse,  taking separate vehicles.

When her tour group heads home, Christy stays on in Beirut, hires a car and driver and goes to Dar Ibrahim, her great aunt’s crumbling palace in the Lebanon mountains.

Hamid, Christy’s driver, shoulders their way in over the objections of the old Arab porter.

They’re greeted by John Lethman, a young researcher who says he came to Lebanon doing research and Lady Harriet took him into her household.

Christy finds him plausible, given her Aunt Harriet’s fondess for young men.

Hamid sees the signs of a hashish smoker.

Mary Stewart keeps the story moving, with just enough sexual tension between the cousins to make Christy interesting when she’s alone on the page.

Stewart lets Christy talk far more to strangers than any reasonably intelligent young woman alone in a foreign land would do, but most readers will finish the novel before they notice.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Rough Magic Not Bard Quality

Dust jacket for This Rough MagicThis Rough Magic is a romantic mystery set on Corfu where Lucy Warring, an actress of modest talent whose first London gig folded after a short run, is visiting her pregnant sister whose husband has had to stay in Rome to work.

Lucy’s sister and brother-in-law rent one of their island properties to the acclaimed actor Sir Julian Gale and his composer son, Max, who keeps uninvited visitors away from the property. Another of the Forli family properties on Corfu is rented to an Englishman who is working on a book of his photographs.

On her first morning in Corfu, Lucy is horrified to hear shots aimed at a dolphin frolicking in the cove. Max Gale is the only person in sight.

Thus Mary Stewart sets up a familiar plot in which the initially antagonistic couple solve a mystery and find love.

Stewart weaves into the novel elements of an old tale that Corfu was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s magic island in The Tempest, heading chapters with quotations from the play.

Steward also lards characters’ conversation with literary allusions. The characters, however, aren’t substantial enough to bear a literary novel.

This Rough Magic remains a boilerplate novel, more rough than magic.

This Rough Magic
By Mary Stewart
M. S. Mill and William Morrow
1964
254 pages
My grade: C
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni