Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).

Witch Week: The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart

This week Lory of The Emerald City Book Review is hosting her annual Witch Week event, a celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is Dreams of Arthur – books which draw on the Arthurian legends. Having read and loved Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy a few years ago, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to read The Wicked Day, another of her Arthurian novels.

There is some overlap between The Wicked Day and the events of the final Merlin novel, The Last Enchantment, but in this book the focus switches to Mordred, the son of King Arthur and his half-sister, the witch Morgause. At the beginning of the novel, Mordred is being raised by peasants in the Orkney Islands and is unaware of his true parentage. It is only by chance that he is brought back into contact with his real mother, Morgause, by now the widow of King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, with whom she has had four more sons. Aware of Merlin’s prophecy suggesting that Mordred will be the cause of Arthur’s death, Morgause takes the boy into her household, sensing that he could be a useful weapon against Arthur.

Eventually, Morgause and her sons are summoned south to Camelot and Mordred will have to decide where his loyalties lie. But even if he chooses Arthur, will he be able to defy the prophecy or will he prove to be his father’s downfall after all?

I enjoyed this book, though maybe not quite as much as the three Merlin novels, which is probably because I found Merlin himself a more appealing character than Mordred. Having said that, Mary Stewart’s portrayal of Mordred is much more sympathetic than I had expected. Although my knowledge of Arthurian legend is very limited, I had gained the impression from other sources that Mordred was a villain, a traitor who betrayed Arthur. Stewart’s Mordred is not like that at all. He’s by no means perfect – he does have flaws and makes mistakes – but he always has the best of intentions and although he is ambitious any trouble he does cause for Arthur is largely due to circumstances outside his control.

As well as Mordred’s relationship with Arthur, his interactions with his four half-brothers – Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth – are also explored. Their attitudes towards Mordred range from suspicion and rivalry to reluctant acceptance and respect. As I’ve said, I don’t know a lot about the Arthurian legends, so although I had heard of King Lot’s four sons and had a basic idea of how their stories would play out, it really was only a basic idea! The advantage of going into a book knowing very little about a subject is that you can be kept in suspense wondering what is going to happen and enjoy the story for its own sake, without any preconceived opinions; on the other hand, it would have been nice to have had other versions of the story and characters in mind so that I could have made comparisons and looked for similarities and differences.

At the end of the book we are given brief retellings of the sections of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain which deal with the Mordred legend. Stewart then goes on to explain why she chose to interpret Mordred’s character the way she did; I found it interesting to read that while she was writing the earlier Merlin novels she had accepted the traditional view of Mordred as a villain and only changed her mind when she came to research his story in detail.

As with Mary Stewart’s other Arthurian novels, the elements of fantasy in The Wicked Day are very subtle and understated, amounting to not much more than a few prophecies and visions. The 6th century Britain that she recreates is a real, believable place and her books feel much more like historical fiction than fantasy, which is possibly why I like them so much. I am planning to read her final Arthurian novel, The Prince and the Pilgrim, and will then see how other authors have approached the legends. When I reviewed The Last Enchantment I received lots of ideas for future reading in the comments, so I have plenty of books and authors to explore. Chris of Calmgrove has also put together a very informative guest post for Witch Week with more suggestions and recommendations.

My Commonplace Book: September 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary



Another high wall appeared ahead of us; York seemed a city of walls. Behind it the Minster loomed. Ahead was a large open space crowded with market stalls under brightly striped awnings that flapped in the cool damp breeze. Heavy-skirted goodwives argued with stallholders while artisans in the bright livery of their guilds looked down their noses at the stalls’ contents, and dogs and ragged children dived for scraps. I saw most of the people had patched clothes and worn-looking clogs. Watchmen in livery bearing the city arms stood about, observing the crowds.

Sovereign by CJ Sansom (2006)


But whereas the planets are serene in their separateness, knowing any collision with one another likely to destroy them and return them to dust, Fogg remarks that he, along with very many of his race, finds his Separateness the most entirely sad fact of his existence and is every moment hopeful of colliding with someone who will obscure it from his mind.

Restoration by Rose Tremain (1989)



“Do you like history?” he enquired.

“Oh, yes.” She turned eagerly to him, forgetting momentarily the splendour of the pageant. “It is about people, you see. The deeds they performed. The way they thought.”

Elizabeth the Beloved by Maureen Peters (1972)


Writing is a kind of magic. One person sits in a room alone and makes marks on a page that represent the images in her mind. Another person looks at those marks, weeks or months or a hundred years later, and similar images appear in that person’s mind. Magic. Plays and choreography hold yet another level of magic and meaning: the marks on the page leap to action in another person’s body, to be seen by thousands of others. The ability to weave that kind of magic paid well in Las Vegas.

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan (2014)


He was a good husband. He had comforted her when she’d sobbed violently against his plump chest, then rested dry-eyed against it and tried not to remember all the things she no longer knew about her son. How tall was he now? Had the colour of his hair changed? Did he still wake sometimes in the middle of the night unable to breathe? Did he still like to find beetles in the cracks in a stone wall, or to look for hidden things beneath a rock?
Did he remember her at all?

Rebellion by Livi Michael (2015)



But the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)


Three telephones kept ringing like demented things, and by post, telegram, wireless, and personal appearance the information poured in. Nine-tenths of it quite useless, but all of it requiring a hearing: some of it requiring much investigation before its uselessness became apparent. Grant looked at the massed pile of reports, and his self-control deserted him for a little.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (1936)


“It is the only thing I know of to his advantage,” Judith said. “I will admit him to be an excellent whip. But for the rest I find him a mere fop, a creature of affectations, tricked out in modish clothes, thinking snuff to be of more moment than events of real importance. He is proud, he can be insolent. There is a reserve, a lack of openness—I must not say any more: I shall put myself in a rage, and that will not do.”

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935)



I heard the fanfare and recognised it; it was the entrance of Annalisa and her white stallion. The trumpets cut through the air, silver, clear and commanding. Old Piebald stopped grazing and lifted his head, with his ears cocked as one imagines a war horse might at the smell of battle and the trumpets. Then the music changed, sweet, lilting and golden, as the orchestra stole into the waltz from The Rosenkavalier.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)


In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)


“I might be wrong, but I fancy that however much a girl may admire, or envy, the heroine of some romance, who finds herself in the most extraordinary situations; and however much she may picture herself in those situations, she knows it is nothing more than a child’s game of make-believe, and that she would not, in fact, behave at all like her heroine.”

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer (1966)



“You’re not shy, Julia,” he said. “It’s what I noticed first about you. How calmly you faced the world with that stupendous, utterly unnatural face of yours, and of course – you know the spirit in which I say that, it’s merely a stated fact – I knew then you were a natural. No no, there’s no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, but that you’ll thrive.”

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch (2016)


It happens this way sometimes, we can discover truths about ourselves in a moment, sometimes in the midst of drama, sometimes quietly. A sunset wind can be blowing off the sea, we might be alone in bed on a winter night, or grieving by a grave among leaves. We are drunk at a tavern, dealing with desperate pain, waiting to confront enemies on a battlefield. We are bearing a child, falling in love, reading by candlelight, watching the sun rise, a star set, we are dying…

But there is something else to all of this, because of how the world is for us, how we are within it. Something can be true of our deepest nature and the running tide of days and years might let it reach the shore, be made real there — or not.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)


Favourite books read in September: Sovereign, Airs Above the Ground and Black Sheep

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

airs-above-the-ground This month, one of my favourite authors, Mary Stewart, would have been 100 years old and to mark the occasion I decided it was time to pick up one of the few remaining books of hers that I still hadn’t read. I chose Airs Above the Ground, a suspense novel set in Austria which was first published in 1965 – and it was a great choice because I loved it!

At the beginning of the novel, our heroine, Vanessa March, is angry and disappointed because her husband, Lewis, has insisted on going to Stockholm on a business trip just when they had been due to leave for a summer holiday in Italy. Left behind in London, Vanessa meets a friend, Carmel Lacy, for tea and is shocked when Carmel mentions that she has just seen Lewis in a newsreel about a circus fire in Austria. Convinced that there must have been some mistake, Vanessa goes to watch the news footage herself and discovers that it’s true – not only is Lewis in Austria when he’s supposed to be in Sweden, he has also been caught on film with his arm around a pretty young girl.

Conveniently, Carmel’s teenage son, Timothy, is hoping to go to Vienna to visit his father and Carmel is looking for someone to act as a chaperone. Determined to catch up with Lewis and find out what’s going on, Vanessa agrees to accompany him. On arriving in Austria, however, Tim admits that he hasn’t been completely honest about his relationship with his father and instead he ends up staying with Vanessa as she searches for Lewis. They are an unlikely pair – at seventeen, Tim doesn’t really need a chaperone, especially not one who is only twenty-four herself – but a friendship quickly forms and together the two become caught up in a mystery involving a travelling circus, a mysterious Englishman and an old piebald horse.

Airs Above the Ground is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed at all. I found so many things to enjoy, first and foremost the beautifully written descriptions of the Austrian countryside, the mountains, the villages and the fictional castle of Schloss Zechstein which becomes the focus of the action for the second half of the story:

And, perched on the outermost edge of the crag, like something straight out of the fairy books of one’s childhood, was the Schloss Zechstein, a miniature castle, but a real romantic castle for all that, a place of pinnacles and turrets and curtain walls, of narrow windows and battlements and coloured shields painted on the stone. There was even a bridge; not a drawbridge, but a narrow stone bridge arching out of the forest to the castle gate, where some small torrent broke the rock-ridge and sent a thin rope of white water smoking down below the walls.

Many of Mary Stewart’s novels involve the heroine forming a bond with a lonely or neglected young boy, and while Timothy is too old to be considered a child, it was still good to watch the relationship between them develop. It’s a relationship based entirely on trust, friendship and mutual liking, with no hints of any romantic attraction at all. Of course, unlike most Stewart heroines, Vanessa is already married before the novel even begins and this does give her character a slightly different feel. Like the others, she’s a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman but she’s clearly in awe of Lewis, and although I did enjoy her interactions with her husband, it seemed that whenever he was around she tended to place too much reliance in him and lost some of that strength and resourcefulness.

I also loved Old Piebald, the horse whose master died in the circus fire and whose injured leg Vanessa treats using her veterinary skills. The scene at the end of Chapter 9 where he is grazing in a meadow with circus music playing in the distance has to be one of my favourite moments in all of Mary Stewart’s novels! Horses play an important role in the story – Tim’s real reason for coming to Austria is to get a job with Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School and it was nice to have an opportunity to learn more about the school and its beautiful Lipizzaner stallions. The novel takes its title from the movements performed by these horses, known as the ‘airs above the ground’.

As well as all of the other things I’ve mentioned, there’s also plenty of drama, including a desperate race around the castle battlements, a car chase and a scene involving a mountain railway train. Airs Above the Ground hasn’t become one of my absolute favourite Stewart novels, but it’s definitely in my top five or six (I’ve read eleven of her suspense novels so far, plus three of her Arthurian novels). Have you read this one? And have you done anything to celebrate Mary Stewart’s centenary?

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment The Last Enchantment is the final part of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which began with The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills. I have been reading it this week for Lory’s Witch Week, a celebration of fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends, but I’m sure I would have picked it up soon anyway as I loved the first two books and was looking forward to reading the conclusion of Merlin’s story.

The Last Enchantment picks up the story where The Hollow Hills ended, with Arthur beginning his reign as High King of Britain after pulling the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from its stone. Almost immediately, Arthur must begin a series of battles against the Saxons before he can achieve peace and security throughout his kingdom. But Arthur is not the main focus of the novel; like the previous two books, this one is narrated by Merlin…and Merlin is facing a battle of his own. Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgause, has given birth to a son, and Merlin has foreseen that this child, Mordred, could pose a threat to the King.

In the first half of the novel, Merlin tells us of his journey north in search of Mordred, as well as several other events, such as the building of Camelot and Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, which will be familiar even to readers who, like me, only have a basic knowledge of the Arthurian legends. In the second half of the book, there is a growing sense of sadness and poignancy as Merlin ages, his magical powers begin to fade and Arthur, while still valuing his friendship, no longer relies on him as he used to. Merlin takes on an apprentice, Nimuë, whom he hopes will eventually take his place as the King’s enchanter, but he soon discovers that his new assistant has some surprises in store for him.

Maybe because I found this such a sad story, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, but I do think all three are wonderful books. I was slightly disappointed with the portrayal of the female characters (I think I mentioned that in my review of the previous novel too). Arthur’s sisters, Morgan and Morgause, are both evil witches, while Guinevere is pushed into the background and never really comes to life at all. Then there’s Nimuë, whose storyline I really disliked and found quite painful to read at times. Merlin’s relationship with Arthur, though, is one of the highlights of the book and I found myself looking forward to all of their scenes together.

Before reading this trilogy my knowledge of Arthurian myth was limited to T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and one or two television adaptations which I can now barely remember watching; I think this was an advantage, because it meant I was kept in suspense, only vaguely aware of the outline of the story and the role each character would play. I was surprised that there was no Lancelot (his part in the story is taken by Arthur’s friend, Bedwyr, instead), I had no idea that Arthur was thought to have had more than one wife called Guinevere and I knew nothing of the involvement of Nimuë in the later stages of Merlin’s story. Mary Stewart discusses all of these things and more in her author’s note at the end of the book, explaining how she chose to interpret various sources and to decide what to include in her version of the legend.

I was sorry to reach the end of Merlin’s story, but I can definitely see myself wanting to re-read all three of these books in the future – and, of course, I would also like to read Mary Stewart’s other two Arthurian novels, The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred) and The Prince and the Pilgrim. I think it’s fascinating that there are so many different variations of these legends and now that I’ve read this version, I’m interested in reading interpretations by other authors. If you can recommend any good ones, please let me know!

The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

Hollow Hills I didn’t really intend to read The Hollow Hills last weekend. I have books on my library pile, review copies to catch up with, and books to read for various other projects, but something made me yearn for Mary Stewart and I picked up the second of her Arthurian novels on Saturday morning. I was immediately pulled into the story and had finished the book by Monday.

The Hollow Hills is part of a series of five books set in Arthurian Britain, although the first three are usually described as the Merlin Trilogy. The first book, The Crystal Cave, introduces us to Merlin and his world; The Hollow Hills continues the story, beginning just before the birth of Arthur. As the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall, the young Arthur is sent into hiding, not only as protection against Uther’s enemies but also to keep him conveniently out of the way until another legitimate heir is born. But Merlin, with his gift of prophecy and visions, knows that it will be Arthur who will one day raise the legendary sword Caliburn from its resting place and become King.

Like The Crystal Cave, the story is narrated by Merlin himself and as Arthur is only a baby throughout much of the novel (and still only fourteen at the end) this book is more about Merlin than it is about Arthur. While Arthur is growing up in safety, ignorant of his true parentage, Merlin is having adventures of his own as he travels throughout Europe, takes on new identities, and explores the legends behind the great sword Caliburn (which until now I have always known as Excalibur). I loved the book from beginning to end and was never bored, but there is always the sense that the whole novel is building towards the moment when Arthur will learn who he really is and be ready to reclaim his heritage.

The plot means that Merlin and Arthur are kept apart for most of the novel, but I enjoyed the scenes that they do have together. I like the way Mary Stewart portrays both characters and the development of the bond between the two of them. It’s disappointing, though, that there are no strong female characters in this book: Ygraine only appears briefly and while Morgause (in this version Arthur’s half-sister) does have an important role in the story, she is hardly portrayed very flatteringly. Apart from that, I loved everything else about this book, and of course, it’s very well written with lots of beautiful, vivid descriptions. It’s Mary Stewart, after all!

While I don’t have a lot of knowledge of the Arthurian legends, I do know the basic details, so some parts of the story felt familiar to me – but even where I thought I knew what was going to happen, this didn’t lessen the enjoyment of the book for me. There is not just one version of the legend, of course, but lots of them which all differ slightly, and in her notes at the end of the book, Stewart explains some of the choices she has made. Some readers may be disappointed that there is so little actual ‘magic’ in this novel, but that’s one of the things I like about it; most of what happens has a rational explanation and there’s only a touch of the supernatural.

I think of the two books in this series that I’ve read so far, I did prefer The Crystal Cave, but only slightly, and I’m now looking forward to reading the next one, The Last Enchantment.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave With only four of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels still to read, I decided that for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week I would try one of her Arthurian novels instead. The Crystal Cave is the first in the series and introduces us to Myrddin Emrys, better known as Merlin. I should begin by saying that I have previously read very few novels that tell the story of Merlin or King Arthur (T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is the only one that really comes to mind). I wasn’t sure that The Crystal Cave would be my type of book and I wondered if I would regret not picking up another of the romantic suspense novels for the reading week. Well, I can assure you that I didn’t regret my choice at all!

The book is set in 5th century Britain, a land of several warring kingdoms held together by Vortigern, the High King. Vortigern has invited the Saxons to Britain to help him rule, but they are disliked by the people and Vortigern’s throne is soon under threat not only from his own son, Vortimer, but also from two other princes – Ambrosius and Uther who are exiled in Less Britain (Britanny). This is the world into which Merlin is born.

Our story begins with six-year-old Merlin living in the home of his grandfather, the King of South Wales. Merlin’s mother is the King’s daughter, Niniane, but the identity of his father is unknown as Niniane has refused to reveal his name. Merlin is a lonely child, despised by his grandfather, but he is also very intelligent, quick to learn and has a special gift known as ‘the Sight’. One day he rides out into the hills near his home and discovers a cave inhabited by a man called Galapas. Inside this cave is a second, smaller cave filled with crystals in which Merlin has visions when he looks into the light of these crystals. When fate takes him across the Narrow Sea to Less Britain several years later, Merlin meets the exiled Ambrosius and makes some important discoveries about both the past and the future…

The Crystal Cave is a great book and is now one of my absolute favourites by Mary Stewart. It obviously has a different feel from her contemporary suspense novels, but there were also some similarities and I could definitely tell it was written by the same author! Whenever I read a Stewart novel I expect a strong setting with vivid descriptions and I certainly got that with this book. Merlin’s travels take him through England, Brittany and Ireland, to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, to the wonders of Stonehenge and, of course, to Wales:

There were rain clouds massing in the west, but in front of them, like a bright curtain, the slanting sunlight. One could see on a day like this why the green hills of Wales had been called the Black Mountains and the valleys running through them the Valleys of Gold. Bars of sunlight lay along the trees of the golden valleys, and the hills stood slate-blue or black behind them, with their tops supporting the sky.

One thing that surprised me about this book is that it does not have such a strong fantasy element as I’d expected. While Merlin certainly does have visions which foretell the future, many of the things he does have very little to do with magic and more to do with his observations and understanding of science and of human nature. I loved the way his character was portrayed; he felt so believable and real. It probably helped that I don’t have a lot of previous knowledge of the myths and legends surrounding Merlin which meant I had no preconceived ideas and could just concentrate on enjoying Mary Stewart’s version of the story. I’m so pleased I chose The Crystal Cave for the Reading Week and am now looking forward to meeting Merlin again in The Hollow Hills!