Book Review: The Dragon’s Castle

The Dragon’s Castle (Book II in The Apprentice series)
by James Cardona

I recall being surprised as a teenager that books about Merlin qualified as fantasy; I had grown accustomed to perceiving that genre as stocked with dei ex machina and endless casts of characters I couldn’t keep track of. Certainly, I did concede that perhaps I just wasn’t good with all those relationships, but it remained true I simply didn’t wish to trail after an endless parade of people in each book. As a result, I’ve been rather uninterested in fantasy for a number of years.

Lately I’ve been having a new look at the genre and The Dragon’s Castle, second of two James Cardona  novels I’ve now read, has gone a long way in persuading me that I might have been missing out. The novel features four, perhaps more modern, wizards: Nes’egrinon and his apprentice Bel, who are drawn to the fortress city of Sha’mont as war looms, and Shireen under the watch of her mentor, Meetta.

When Bel and Shireen come face to face, the memories of their prior history pick at scars of the past and a forced split, owing to the regulations prohibiting romantic relationships amongst those who choose the wizarding way. This inner conflict occurs alongside the threatened invasion of Sha’mont by its king’s cousin, Seol, who rules half of the divided kingdom their grandfather had bequeathed separately to his two sons, Seol and Thrashel’s fathers. As with any kingdom, jealousies and ambition hold sway; as things heat up, the problem the wizards encounter is discerning exactly who holds these emotions, and how they wield their power.

One marvelous difference in Cardona’s tale is that it is not populated by so many people who appear randomly but bear also the requirement of knowing reams of prior history in order to understand their roles. To be sure, there are many people within, but the author keeps it straightforward and doesn’t assign greater importance to anyone who doesn’t fully make himself known. Moreover, he provides a character listing, divided into magical and non-magical, with simplified descriptions of the role each person plays. In my own reading I almost never had to refer to it, given that Cardona weaves what backstories we need so seamlessly into his narrative, readers are able to do what they are meant to: sit back and enjoy the story.

And enjoy it I did. Cardona’s style is what I might call “spare, with details.” One look at the book—nearly 600 pages—may well cause balking at use of the word “spare,” but I assure, you’ll be glad to hold such heft in your hands, knowing you still have so much addicting read ahead. The narrative has plenty of detail, but keeps the plot moving forward and doesn’t get hung up on a move here or a contemplation there, largely because the story is so skillfully written with both openness and mystery. The revelation of one detail comes with clues but stays concealed for a reason. Simultaneously we become involved with other scenes so thrilling and some potentially deadly the flow of adrenaline becomes a rush, while we still care for the characters involved.

A young adult novel, The Dragon’s Castle has its fair share of violence, though not gratuitous and it is on par with that of many other YA novels. Moreover, Cardona’s characters address the manner in which war mangles and destroys the lives of people caught in the middle, and they thoughtfully contemplate their own decisions, before and after choices are made. The complexity of the plot as well as how the author moves us through it treats young adults as competent readers, with a perfect balance of reader- and writer-friendly language also suitable for adults.

While much of the language is pragmatic and to the point, Cardona’s narrative is at times laced with graceful views to the world around the wizards, typically woven smoothly into a small passage that provides an abundance of detail.

Although they mostly rode in the shade as the trees on either side of the path held hands overhead and provided much cover, yet it was steamy and humid in the forest. They did not press their horses but let them walk at their own pace.

Whether a more sedate scene such as referenced above, or one of action-filled episodes, the author brings readers into the moment and tension builds within as we read along, urging and championing Bel as situations flare up, secrets are revealed and the cast searches for victory without the total destruction of all they and others hold dear. Moreover, Cardona skillfully constructs a fantasy that nevertheless reflects realities of our own world, romance, difficult decisions, loss and interpersonal communication playing many of the same roles young readers themselves are likely to encounter as they mature.

Though The Dragon’s Castle is second in its series, it reads exceedingly well as a standalone novel, and I highly recommend it not only for an audience already keen on fantasy, but also for those seeking a great new read. Equipped with steady pacing and fantastic plot, constructed with technical expertise and care for humanity, this is a novel that will draw readers into a world brought to life so engagingly they won’t want to put it down.

About the author …

James Cardona was born in Lorain, Ohio, and received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware with a minor in Religious Studies. He also studied briefly at Penn State University. He spent six years in the U.S. Navy and served during the first Gulf War. He has worked in factories and food service, as an electrician, a teacher, supervisor and engineer. But like many creatives, his heart beats most strongly when it is full of the magic of building something new. Besides writing, he can be found drawing, painting, writing computer code, tinkering with electronics and building robots. Prior to his knees turning creaky he was an avid runner, completing about fifty or so races at the half marathon distance or greater.

EM3 James Cardona

His debut novel was Gabriella and Dr. Duggan’s Dimensional Transport Machine, the first book in the NuGen series. In 2013, he wrote the children’s science fiction-holiday book Santa Claus vs. The Aliens, followed by first in The Apprentice fantasy series, Under the Shadow of Darkness. In 2015, he penned three new books: Gabriella and the Curse of the Black Spot, second in the NuGen series and The Dragon’s Castle, second in The Apprentice series. Finally, in 2015 he wrote something completely different, Community 17, a whirlwind, dystopian science-fiction adventure. In 2016, James released Dragon Hunters, a science fiction-fantasy mashup of a story, and The Night Wolf, a prelude tale set in the world of the apprentice series.

The Worthy Apprentice is now available and he is currently working on Into Darkness, which are parts three and four of The Apprentice series, respectively. He is also writing something fresh and new, a science fiction book tentatively titled Rebirth.

To learn much more about the multi-award winning author James Cardona, including more biographical information and history, see his fun, informative and intriguing website. You can also follow him at Goodreads and find his books at Amazon and Amazon UK.

*********

Click here for my review of Community 17: A Dystopian Novella.

*********

Photos courtesy James Cardona

*********

A free copy of The Dragon’s Castle was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.

Book Review: Susanna: The Early Years

Susanna: Volume 1 – The Early Years

(Book III in The Merencourt Saga)

by Carol Edgerley

B.R.A.G. Medallion-winning author

Download a FREE copy of Susanna: Volume 1 – The Early Years between November 10-14!

Available at Amazon and Amazon UK.

susannaWe were first introduced to author Carol Edgerley’s French side of the family via her great aunt, Marguerite de Merencourt, who lends her given name to the series’ first installment. Edgerley herself comes to this family history via clandestine story hours meant for her to improve her math grades, but thankfully her tutor aunt—a different one—gave in to her niece’s begging for family history and the result is the mesmerizing Merencourt Saga, of which Susanna is the third.

Despite being this far into the series Susanna could easily be read as a stand-alone, and if that were all any given reader wanted to dip their toes in, I would say don’t miss it. However, there is a richness in Susanna’s background, amazing tales of strong women, perseverance and a will to succeed that informs each generation. Marguerite and Claire bring us through these eras and we can see where Susanna gets the stoicism that carries her though the worst of times. Never to worry, however, dear readers, for anyone who starts first with number three will simply want to reach back and devour all the stories, much like Edgerley herself did as a child.

Marguerite de Merencourt was unwanted and disliked by her aristocratic mother, who with her favored son carried on a lifelong campaign against the girl, ultimately resulting in her banishment to an Irish convent school, followed by elopement and hasty relocation to British India. In an era when women existed in the shadows of the men they were connected to (fathers, husbnds), Marguerite’s life seems like payback for having made her own decisions. Ultimately she plans a way for herself, but the price she pays is steep.

Claire takes us to the next generation of Merencourt women, a journey through which we discover that dysfunction prefers to travel in packs, and no one seems spared from the misery of ambition, pride, righteousness and bigotry (in a variety of forms). The teenage Claire grows into a rather bitter woman whose lot in life is to deal with the overturn of almost every fortune she might ever receive. She throws it right back at the universe, not taking the time to think about those who stand in the way, and her behavior is at times very difficult to read.

claire
Claire is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

So it may come as a surprise when this very same Claire opens Susanna’s story as the doting and affectionate grandmother, now living in France, who takes the sickly toddler into her home while the girl’s mother runs a school in the Himalayas. Diana’s occasional visits seem designed to disrupt any balance or security in Susanna’s life, for she comes with an irrational anger, blaming her daughter for the distance between them, lobbing accusations and subjecting her to violent abuse. Claire is mortified by this and pleads with Diana, who only reminds her of past transgressions and denies her any redemption, thereby absolving herself of the wrongs she too perpetuates.

Not long into Susanna the girl’s delight of her mother’s new baby is severely punished when she peers into the pram and the nanny reports to Diana that Susanna has attacked the infant.

I’m catching this wicked, BAD girl attacking Baby in her pram, Madam!” declared the nanny in outraged tones. So jealous she is, wanting to hurt our little baby. See how poor Samantha is crying!”

N … no! I didn’t hurt —”

 “Why, you vicious little brat!” Diana surged to her feet, scarlet in the face with fury. “I’ll teach you to attack a defenceless baby!”

 Seizing Susanna by the arm, she hoisted the shrieking child into the air and began to violently beat her. “See how you like that, you vile child!” Diana panted between wallops. “If I catch you anywhere near my baby again, you’ll get another thrashing.”

While Edgerley writes in the same style as in her previous novels, with a flair and grace that embodies a bygone time and its mannerisms, mores and standards, she also captures events in an economic style that tells all we need to know, reaching out to our hearts for this little girl while avoiding a literary sort of voyeurism that would threaten to lessen the story’s value.

marg
Opening novel in The Merencourt Saga series, Marguerite is also a winner of the indie B.R.A.G. Medallion

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is that as Susanna grows older, the narrative takes on deeper layers as we witness the ins and outs of Diana’s horrific projection and psychological abuse. Astounded at such cruelty, I found myself frequently asking, “But why? Why and how is this mother so cruel to her child in such a way that most of us would not inflict on a dog?”

A great part of the answer goes back to Marguerite; in the review for this book I mused on the perils of wasted talent and forced idleness in a society and era in which women’s mobility barely existed. While we in our age do not often dwell on it, movement in reality equals freedom, both of which Marguerite claims for herself in opposition to her parents’ plans for her. The hand of authority—again, back to the standards of the time—nevertheless reaches to her in India all the way from France, inflicting in other ways its harsh grip and affecting her relationships.

However, the die was cast. As I read Susanna I mused more on a conversation within the events of a popular reality/time experiment television series in which a family lives for three months, in every way possible, as would a typical household in Victorian England. One participant reflects the manner in which people of the era—particularly women—threw themselves into their projects and with sustained interest because the day’s enforced limitations resulted in boredom so severe it could drive individuals to madness. While Susanna is unfortunate in being confined within such parameters, she has inherited Marguerite’s imagination and drive, never willing to settle for dutifully giving in to the tasks and activities assigned to her.

The historical Claire, aged about 48, in France
The historical Claire, aged about 48, in France

Within this Edgerley reminds us that this is not mere knitting and fainting couch dwelling—not that this isn’t bad enough, though usually the sort of image we conjure when thinking of women’s lives in this time. As Susanna’s cognitive abilities sharpen with age, so too do Diana’s strategies for emotional manipulation and mental exploitation. Inserting herself into every corner of the girl’s life, Diana even makes use of casual conversation, constantly reconnoitering, the intelligence drawn from it utilized for offensive attacks. She forcefully employs Susanna in occupations that some then and now might find interesting, but are not where the girl’s heart resides. Humiliating Susanna with accusations terribly exaggerated or blatantly untrue, each turn of the screw brings her closer to the edge.

Acting in part almost as a psychological case study—sans the paucity of soul within institutional jargon—the author skillfully shows us the delicate balance her heroine is faced with: bestowed with the benefit of strength of character, the teenage Susanna must also confront the demon that plagues each generation as a cycle of abuse is passed from one to the next. Will her strong personality become a detriment as her ambitions are thwarted? Even if she does manage to break the horrific progression, will she be able to differentiate her actual desires from choices effected by spite?

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Susanna does have an ally in her grandmother Claire, and she engages in happy times in France and India, the author vividly portraying people, places and events in a manner so marvelously descriptive the passages come alive, though not only in image form: we feel the aura, hear the roar of the ocean’s waves, mingling of the people, mouths water at the platters of food as we stride through scenes.

Flora led the way through the house to a colonnaded terrace adjacent to the swimming pool area, where elegantly dressed people chatted together in groups. A band played popular music, and white-coated bearers, wearing the traditional muslin pugri, slowly circulated bearing canapés on silver trays. Garlands of fairy lights twinkling around the pool area added to the festive atmosphere.

 Words are subtly employed as actors to facilitate our engagement with the prose: hair tumbles defiantly about Susanna’s shoulders, Diana surges to her feet in anger and the heat seeps through the ground to our feet or the salt water sprinkles noses as we travel by sea. Hints of culture sprinkle themselves through the novel as Edgerley moves us between continents and years.

Readers ought not be tempted to see Susanna, smaller in appearance than its predecessors, as a book of lesser consequence. It is so readable one might find they have read quite a chunk as the time slipped by, though despite this ease of immersion the content’s dual layers of story and study captures our attention in totality. As The Early Years in the life of Susanna Lalinski, we can expect a part two, and I shall be anticipating it as much as I did each subsequent novel after I first read Marguerite. Readers should keep alert for it as well, and in the meantime, if they haven’t done already, reach back into a room where a young girl was meant to be practicing numbers, but instead begged a tale be told ….

*********

Carol Edgerley tells us in her own words a bit about her amazing life…

Born in Calcutta, Carol spent most of her early childhood in France and then Jersey in the Channel Islands. Educated first at a French convent, she then attended Jersey College for Girls and later went to Heathfield, a girls’ boarding school in Ascot.

carol-edgerleyThroughout her long life (and three marriages) Carol has travelled extensively, visiting the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, living several years in France, India and Hong Kong.

A qualified teacher, Carol ran a successful tutorial in Hong Kong for many years, teaching children French and English towards eventual O-Level examinations. She is delighted to still keep in touch with a number of ex-pupils.

Upon retirement to France, Carol was able to carry out a burning desire to write the story of her French great grandmother’s astonishing life, told to her by a great aunt when she was twelve years of age. In the delightful surroundings of her home in the Dordogne at that time, she wrote the story of Marguerite in long hand, initially for the benefit of her three children.

Years went by, and sweating blood and tears, Carol battled the mysteries of a computer, Mac, Word and email … finally Facebook and Twitter. Encouraged by friends and her three children, she re-invented herself as a writer and typed out the manuscript of Marguerite on her new Mac computer, editing furiously as she went. The exercise, however, took decidedly longer than she had imagined!

Unwilling to pursue a (generally) disappointing path to literary agents and publishers, being dismally aware her work might end up unread, and thrown on a “slush pile,” Carol ventured into the world of self publishing. It was one of her life’s greatest emotional moments to hold a print copy of Marguerite in her hands for the first time!

Delighted by readers’ response to the book, Carol went on to write Claire, the story of Marguerite’s wilful elder daughter, who led an amazing if somewhat tragic life. Now there is Susanna: The Early Years (Volume 1), this being the story of one of Claire’s granddaughters. This particular book shines a light on bullying in its worst form, an unpleasantness that unfortunately persists to this day.

Susanna: A Tale of Passion and Betrayal (Volume 2) will follow in due course.

Carol still lives in France, now in a comfortable old farmhouse set in the centre of its own twenty-eight acres of pastureland in the Vendée. Sitting at her desk in the veranda, she is invariably surrounded by six much-loved adopted dogs of all shapes and sizes.

Find and follow the wonderful Carol Edgerley at her blog, Twitter and Facebook.

*********

A gratis copy of Susanna: Volume 1 – The Early Years was provided to the blogger in order to facilitate an honest review.

*********

Images courtesy Carol Edgerley

*********

This post was updated to include links to free downloads (between November 10-14, 2016).

*********

Month of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)
Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)

I have never encountered any reader who did not adore Mary Stewart’s gothic mystery, Nine Coaches Waiting. From the author who invented the suspense-romance, this universally admired classic is often referenced as the favorite of all Stewart novels. Literary allusions seamlessly sewn into the narrative, each chapter is headed by an epigraph bringing deeper meaning and connection to events within.

It is not long into the tale when Linda Martin, just arrived in Paris to serve as governess to the young and newly-orphaned heir to Château Valmy, reflects on the draw to her assignment, simultaneously embedding observers in a close read and unwittingly receiving a glimpse into events ahead. Though she dismisses her remembered poetic reference as inappropriate to the moment, her insight into significance behind the novel’s title is telling.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace:

Securèd ease and state, the stirring meats,

Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now

Quicken when they’re eaten. . . .

Banquets abroad by torch-light! music! sports!

Nine coaches waiting — hurry, hurry, hurry —

Ay, to the devil. . . .

Having also lost her parents at an early age, Linda is returning to her mother’s homeland, where she herself was raised until taking up residence in an English orphanage. As an adult she is recruited to the governess position, contingent upon her Englishness, for Léon and Héloïse de Valmy want young Phillipe to perfect his English language skills. She conceals her French fluency from the uncle and aunt, later chalking up her tension at their first meeting to her keeping a secret from them.

Her wariness, however, persists as she is unable to shake a feeling of menace. Léon comports himself with a strange brand of arrogance and soundlessly rolls through the estate in his wheelchair. Héloïse is aloof, with a “chilly elegance” that sets Linda into an inexorable state of second guessing herself. Thankfully she and her charge, the nine-year-old Comte de Valmy, develop a good rapport and, in fact, we see his growing attachment to and somewhat dependence upon Linda, for he is not only a lonely little boy but also one deeply disattached from his uncle and aunt. Linda reasons that his bereavement surely plays a role in this, until an accidental shot fired at Phillipe during a walk in the forest results in a near miss that Linda begins to contemplate might not have been so accidental.

Through the novel Stewart’s trademark descriptive powers are in full evidence, leading us from one occurrence to the next on a narrative as flowing and verbally picturesque as the settings she describes. When Linda is invited to the Easter Ball and gathers the courage to attend, she admires the dress she has sewn; the natural world is threaded through Stewart’s portrait of her gaze, fractal light references indicating Linda’s spirits, the mood, possibilities.

The long window curtains mirrored behind me were of rose-colored brocade. The lighting was lovely. As I moved I saw the gleam of the cobwebbed silver thread shift and glimmer through the white cloud of the skirt the way sunlight flies along blown gossamer.

Stewart also engages her protagonist in a budding romance, albeit one that defers to the central mystery as the novel’s primary focus. We see Linda initially becoming attached and the relationship develops, though as events play out we can never be sure where Raoul’s motives position him, or of his explanations for his actions. The suspense becomes wound so tightly that by the end, no matter what readers may have suspected regarding this character, the end results nevertheless come as a twist because it always could have gone either way. Being the consummate master that she is, Stewart utilizes character self-reflection as technique to turn the screw.

Wikimedia Commons (click image)
Wikimedia Commons (click image)

The characters of Nine Coaches Waiting are drawn to the era of the then-contemporary novel, set in the 1950s, and as a result readers will find some interaction that dates the work. At one point Linda refers to herself as “only a woman,” though it is set in a passage in which she remonstrates herself and may be employing a bit of sarcastic self-reflection.

Curiously, however, Stewart periodically engages postmodernist technique within character interaction, such as by noting Mrs. Seddon’s accent in her pronunciation of Rowl—in a manner noted only by readers and Linda; she herself is unaware. Linda, in concealing her ability to speak French, places her awareness in the minds of others in order to perceive herself as they do, and remember not to acknowledge what she has heard.

As Linda’s initially guarded response to the de Valmy clan transitions into distrust, suspicious behavior elevates and unexplained accidents continue. The young governess must face the terrifying consequences of remaining at the isolated château with her charge or find a way out, and work out if the man she loves is who she should be running from.

As with Thunder on the Right, Nine Coaches Waiting is a blast from my past, and the thrill I felt as events began to heat up was no less enthusiastic this time round. Perhaps more than any other of her many novels, Stewart’s background in literature is quite evident in this one: the literary snippets throughout foreshadow events and reflect the young woman’s thought processes. Linda is compared to Jane Eyre and Cinderella, and she hearkens back to her earlier ruminations on The Revenger’s Tragedy when she inwardly contemplates Léon de Valmy as the Demon King (and hears him refer to himself as the fallen Lucifer). That the author can effectively manage a sweep through centuries of poetry and prose while remaining true her plot strengthens the story and is a testament to the mastery that even today continues to mesmerize and gain new readers as they discover the magic that is Mary Stewart.

*********

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

*********

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with the “Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin” and a review for The Crystal Cave.

*********

This post has been updated to include links to related entries. 

Month of Mary Stewart: Thunder on the Right

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

I first read Thunder on the Right at a fairly early age (11) and recall enjoying the book quite a lot. Shortly before my recent re-read, however, I had to confess I remembered very little of the plot. As I settled in for my re-visitation I wondered how much would catch my attention in “drifts of memory” beckoning from the pages.

thunder on the rightI was surprised to learn that the one utterance I thought I recalled, on the part of the protagonist, did not actually occur—although I could pinpoint the spot I must have been thinking of and which settled into my brain erroneously. Apart from that, none of it seemed familiar, actually a positive circumstance because it enabled me to approach the novel from an almost-first-time reader’s perspective with very little bias.

The caveat I will throw out here, though, is that while I deliberately avoid reviews of books I plan to write about, I hadn’t planned or avoided in this case—not last year when I had been wading through books read in the past and threads regarding what others made of them. Lucky for me, I read reviews with a grain of salt, given how utterly opposite so many predictions have been as regard actual outcomes.

As it turns out, I enjoyed Thunder on the Right as much or more than I did as an eleven-year-old child. In truth, likely more, owing to greater understanding of certain references—“Velasquez getup” and “Roland’s great sword Durandel,” e.g.—and ways of the world. As our story begins to roll, within the “Academic Overture” Stewart utilizes to position the acting out of a dramatic performance, readers are given to understand that protagonist Jennifer Silver’s mother embodies the traits of a parent who today might be labeled “helicopter.” “[W]ith [an] unswerving devotion to the standards of a fading age,” she restricts her only child from much life has to offer under the guise of speaking what she believes Jennifer is too timid to do. For her own part, Jennifer is easygoing and quietly reserved. Together “[m]other and daughter got on very well indeed, with a deep affection founded on almost complete misunderstanding.”

At 22, the well-educated but inexperienced Jennifer makes a sojourn to post-war France, where she plans to meet up with her cousin Gillian, who for a time lived with the Silvers following the deaths of her parents in one of the first air raids. She meets up with Stephen, a suitor rejected by her mother just before a two-year study stint, now come to “claim” her, a circumstance Jennifer is unaware of, though not Professor Silver, her father.

Jennifer finds herself enlisting Stephen’s aid subsequent to her first visit to the convent in the Pyrenees, where the widowed Gillian had been staying—and possibly planning to join. Having met with one of the resident orphans and the convent’s bursar, Doña Francisca, the young visitor learns that Gillian had indeed been there, though as a patient following a motor vehicle accident and pneumonia, and had died two weeks earlier. The strangeness of the place, Doña Francisca’s odd demeanor and dodgy response to Jennifer’s appearance, and the sum of reported events not adding up all combine to spur the suspicious Jennifer to investigate.

Initially skeptical, Stephen plays along until events wind up and the fate of poor Gillian is at last confirmed. In Stewart’s groundbreaking style, mystery is joined by romance as the pair become close, noted even by our protagonist, who chides herself for repeatedly “running into Stephen’s arms.” Nevertheless, strong and determined, Jennifer performs her sleuthing as she follows, eavesdrops, noses around and pays attention, eventually drawing a conclusion that now requires the hardest part: follow up. As danger intensifies, so too does the thematic thunder of the title, initially present but aloof. The tension rises as the self-aware nature of the two main characters sparks fears that this play will ultimately end as a tragedy.

One critique of Thunder on the Right is that it has adjective overload and that at least portions of its plot are predictable. In truth, Stewart probably could have made her prose less descriptive heavy and it still would have come out a marvelous story. However, I wouldn’t agree the adjectives add too much weight, and in fact find her descriptive prose stirring and sometimes magical. At her first visit to the convent, Jennifer waits in the unmoving heat of a silent moment:

A grasshopper, leaping across her shadow, spread parasol wings of palest powder-blue and the tiny lizard that flicked across the baked stone seemed part of the same enchantment that hung around her in the stillness.

thunderI would concede the possibility of a predictable reveal, though Stewart did keep me guessing as there was at least one other eventuality to consider. Moreover, there are many more instances of intrigue, action and circumstance that potentially throw up roadblocks to assumptions, and the shifting nature of the thunder’s presence, with characters seeking its location on the right—nod to an ancient omen and the eastward positioning of a tempest now past—leaves readers wondering, with perhaps not a few jitters, what danger it might really be signaling.

As Stewart moves her narrative along readers get a sense of musical accompaniment to pair with “Tragic Overture: stringendo,” or “Danse Macabre” and other chapter titles reflecting events within. As murder becomes a tool to enable continued criminal activity, the thunder is mirrored in betrayals, facial expressions, dangerous waters … a memento mori for all involved, no matter how, in the chilling underworld of the darkly ambitious.

One of my favorite passages in the book serves as part of this linkage, in many instances so subtly placed:

It was a swift beat, accelerando, that thudded behind her, up the turf of the valley track, bringing with it that faint crawling sense of excitement, that slow apprehensive prickling of the skin that is our inheritance from countless long-dead men to whom the sudden sound of galloping hooves spelled danger.

Here Stewart brilliantly captures an involved, collective response sharply, concisely, the rhythm of our own blood beating in time with the musical pieces she summons as we “watch” this story play out, simultaneously becoming part of it. She masterfully manages the multiple threads running throughout, all the while keeping the suspense element dominant over a developing romance. An end result is a thrilling race against time as Jennifer searches for the questions to ask and the answers to lead her forward.

While not the most well-received of Stewart’s novels, I still find this one drew me in and consider it an overlooked gem in Mary Stewart’s legacy. For those new to the author or who haven’t picked up her work in some time, Thunder on the Right is a spectacular choice with the twists, surprises and intrigue that will keep readers up far past bedtime.

*********

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

*********

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for Nine Coaches Waiting.

*********

Update: This post has been corrected to reflect its series title and add links to related entries.

Friday Night Flashback: The World of Mary Stewart

Readers of this blog know of my lifelong love affair with Merlin, in particular the version of him presented in Mary Stewart’s best-selling novel The Crystal Cave. However, I haven’t really mentioned Stewart’s other works so much—perhaps not at all— and this month is a wonderful time to rectify that, as it marks the 100-year anniversary of the novelist’s birth.  Stewart’s bestselling novels were renowned for merging romance with mystery and suspense, and presented determined and capable heroines who didn’t shy away from dangerous situations.

madamWhile Stewart herself never endured any of the experiences her heroines did, she didn’t shy away from keeping on through adversity, adjusting when needed, but also grabbing life by the reins, taking chances on what she believed in.

Born September 17, 1916 to parents who cherished the spirit of adventure—her father was a vicar who sailed around Cape Horn and brought a New Zealand bride back home with him—Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a reader and writer from very early on, publishing her first poem at age five.

Following the end of World War II, she met the future Sir Frederick Stewart and distinguished geologist at a war victory celebration. The pair were married within three months, though it was not until 1953 that Frederick Stewart persuaded his wife to submit her first novel, Madam Will You Talk?, which was an immediate success.

A lover of Roman history, Stewart took full advantage of her husband’s travels to pursue observations of her settings, the details and research informing her novels, rich with descriptive landscape and natural environment. Despite its outdated use of semi-colons substituting for commas, the strength of her prose is such that it remains eloquent and mesmerizing. From My Brother Michael, set in Greece and on the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time:

All along the Pleistus—at this season a dry white serpent of shingle beds that glittered in the sun—all along its course, filling the valley bottom with the tumbling, whispering green-silver of water, flowed the olive woods; themselves a river, a green-and-silver flood of plumy branches as soft as sea spray, over which the ever-present breezes slid, not as they do over corn, in flying shadows, but in whitening breaths, little gasps that lift and toss the olive crests for all the world like breaking spray.

Thunder on the Right, set in the French Pyrenees—the first Stewart novel I ever read, at age eleven—is one she “detested and [was] ashamed of.” A criticism of the novel is its adjectives, though one reader counters this with her defense, remarking that she “always wonder[s] what people have against adjectives. To me they represent the difference between colour and black and white television.” It is also of note that certain activities in her books, such as smoking, a character often tossing the butt down and grinding it into the ground, frequently dates or diminishes the appeal of various works. However, Mary Stewart has invested so many other timeless and intriguing angles to reel readers in, that these images become more like time capsules into a world that was.

MyBrotherMichaelThe author went on to publish a catalogue of other mystery romance novels and it is curious to note that her publisher didn’t even want anything to do with Merlin, when she broached the topic. “Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses.” Stewart herself confesses medieval times never appealed to her, though she had always wanted to write an historical novel. Upon reading through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain one day—she had no idea why she would be doing that—she found her story. Setting the medieval knight Arthur back in Roman Britain, and re-inventing Merlin—given his full name of Merlin Ambrosius, she wrote Ambrosius in to be the wizard’s father—she invented nearly all the series’ details, though writing the books one at a time. That is to say, she never set out to create a trilogy. In the end she felt Mordred had “been given a jolly hard deal as a character,” a perspective resulting in The Wicked Day, capping off the quintet.

Given the time in which Stewart wrote all her books, it is unsurprising she would have used a typewriter, though many fans likely don’t know the agony she endured to get it all done. Dictating and sending to a typist’s was the easy part—as were subsequent revisions, four in all. An ordinary portable “wrecked” her wrist, and at first she was terrified of a new electric. Later she developed spinal arthritis, but wrote through the agony, maintaining her sense of humor, quipping with a thematic link back to her war era mechanic qualification that “All this makes me sound like a proper old wreck. The chassis may be, but the engine is fine.”

airsStewart also maintained a humility about her craft, stating that “You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the story teller’s flair or you don’t. It’s no virtue of mine. It’s just there.” Also not one for labels, she perhaps brushed off her status as a groundbreaker in the same way she did the stylization she acquired after her husband was knighted: Lady Stewart never used the title. However her work may have been categorized, she maintained, “To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written.”

It’s clear to me which one of these Mary Stewart’s books are, though she herself would likely just have repeated a previous plea: “Can’t I say I just write stories?”

Yes, dear lady, you certainly may. You wrote stories that captured the imagination of readers the world over and in subsequent generations who continue to drink up your words and hope you don’t mind that we kind of adore you. You are a writer’s writer, not threatened by an admission that you hadn’t the energy to pursue a particular idea, gracious in response to those inspired in their own work by yours, secure enough to have a chuckle at your own expense. It is in human DNA to want to hear a story, and you answered this call, thrilling us, keeping us on edge, making us guess. We have lost you in this world now, but you are there for all time.

*********

Mary Stewart’s last book was Rose Cottage in 1997, and her beloved husband, Fred,  passed away in 2001, after which she stopped writing, for he had always been her first reader.

Continuing the journey, I’d like to play my small bit by reviewing Mary Stewart through the month, which also will be a bit of reminiscing for myself. Each week I will revisit a novel with a brief review and commentary about how I remember reading them the first time. Tomorrow’s installment, for example, brings me back to a book that, when I picked it up recently, I knew I barely remembered. Re-reading it reminded me how our memories can play tricks, for I recalled a musing, on the part of the protagonist, that I seem to have invented! There is one scene that could be what stuck in my mind, however flawed the settling in was. Nevertheless the journey continues in earnest and I hope I can persuade you to re-visit or acquaint yourself with the world of Mary Stewart, which is sure to enchant yours.

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for

Thunder on the Right.

*********

Works Consulted

Hauptfuhrer, Fred. “Novelist Mary Stewart’s a Lady, Like Antonia Fraser—by Title; and That Ends the Similarity.” People. September 6, 1976. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Hutchinson, Chris. “Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart: Doctor of Letters.” Durham University Honorary Degrees Speech. July 3, 2009. http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ceremonies/congregation/stewart_mary.pdf. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Page, Katherine Hall. “Mary Stewart: Teller of Tales.” Mystery Scene. mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2354:mary-stewart-teller-of-tales&catid=38:profile&Itemid=191. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Thompson, Raymond H. “The Camelot Project: Interview with Mary Stewart.” Robbins Library Digital Projects. April 14, 1989. d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/interview-with-mary-stewart. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Von Behren, Diana Faillace. “Stormy Locale Packs a Wollop.”  Review of Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart. Amazon.  amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R326X91CN955C9/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0060747463. Accessed August 31, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2002.

*********

Note: This post was updated to include a link to the next installment in the “Month of Mary Stewart” series.