Review: The Last Enchantment

The Last EnchantmentMary Stewart, The Last Enchantment

This third book in Stewart’s Merlin saga picks up right where The Hollow Hills left off: Arthur has just been crowned High King of Britain, and now he must confront the various threats to his kingdom. He immediately engages in battle with the Saxons and attains victory after victory, but the more serious dangers to Arthur’s kingship come from within. First, Morgause has managed to hide away Mordred, the son she conceived during her incestuous liaison with Arthur, who will ultimately be Arthur’s doom. There’s also the necessity of ensuring the succession, which means Arthur must find a bride. And finally, some of the northern kings are chafing under Arthur’s rule, so he faces internal rebellions as well as external threats. Through all of this, Merlin remains by Arthur’s side to give him advice, friendship, and the occasional prophecy.

My biggest feeling on finishing this book is one of relief — I’m finally done with this trilogy! (Yes, there is a fourth book, The Wicked Day, but I don’t own that one and have no intention of reading it.) It’s not badly written at all, but it moves so slowly that I couldn’t wait to be done! I think the pitfall of telling Arthur’s story from Merlin’s point of view is that (at least in this version of events) Merlin likes to go off by himself to read or tend his garden or visit foreign lands, so he’s not by Arthur’s side during all the interesting parts. There’s almost nothing in this book about Arthur’s knights, or his relationship with Guinevere, or most of the famous legends of Camelot. In short, I found this book — and the series as a whole — pretty boring, although maybe Arthur enthusiasts would enjoy it more. Personally, it’s not something I ever need to read again.

Review: The Hollow Hills

The Hollow HillsMary Stewart, The Hollow Hills

Picking up right after The Crystal Cave left off, this book follows Merlin from the day Arthur was conceived to the day he became high king of Britain. Although Merlin helped Uther Pendragon to marry Ygraine, he is currently out of favor with the king. Yet when Uther needs advice about what to do with his unborn child, Merlin is still the first person he consults. If the child is a boy, Uther must recognize him as the king’s son, just in case he is unable to produce a legitimate heir. At the same time, however, he must keep the boy far away from his court, both to protect him and to get him out of the way in case there should be another son with a better claim to the throne. Merlin suggests sending the child to one of Uther’s loyal knights, where he will be raised as a foster child ignorant of his true parentage. Meanwhile, Merlin becomes Arthur’s friend and protector, teaching him all he needs to know in order eventually to take his rightful place as the king’s heir.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first book in this series, The Crystal Cave, but I actually liked this book more. It starts off slowly, but once Arthur is born, the book picks up and gets significantly more interesting. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the political machinations aspect of the book more than the mystical aspect; I found Merlin’s visions and prophecies a little boring! I did like watching the relationship between Merlin and Arthur unfold, though, and I look forward to seeing how it continues in the next book. Overall, I’m glad I decided not to give up after The Crystal Cave, and I’m a little more excited about The Last Enchantment than I was before.

Review: Time and Chance

Time and ChanceSharon Kay Penman, Time and Chance

This novel, the sequel to When Christ and His Saints Slept, continues the story of Henry II after his accession to the throne of England. Henry and his new wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, seemingly have a charmed life, with all the power and riches they could desire. But their great ambitions come with great costs: Henry is constantly on the battlefield defending his holdings in France and skirmishing for power in Wales, while Eleanor is forced to the sidelines and must undergo the rigors of repeated childbirth. The book tells the story of their tempestuous marriage but also examines another important relationship in Henry’s life — his friendship with his chancellor (and later Archbishop of Canterbury), Thomas Becket.

I read When Christ and His Saints Slept a few years ago, but this book contains enough reminders of past events that I was able to follow along without a problem. Overall I enjoyed this novelization of the birth of the Plantagenet dynasty; it’s what I would term an intelligent romp. Penman does her research, but she also manages to write page-turners that are filled with action, scandal, and intrigue. The parts that focused on Henry’s deteriorating relationship with Thomas Becket were both interesting and frustrating to me. Even though I knew how their argument would end, I found myself hoping against hope that they’d be able to communicate with each other and work things out! As for Henry and Eleanor, I think their story in this book will pale in comparison to the events of the sequel, when their children are all grown up. I will be reading Devil’s Brood this summer, and I’m looking forward to it!

Review: The Crystal Cave

The Crystal CaveMary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

This novel, the first installment of Stewart’s Arthurian saga, reimagines the story of Merlin, legendary wizard and mentor to King Arthur. Merlin is the illegitimate son of the king of South Wales, a status that brings both privileges and dangers. He never goes hungry and is able to study with tutors, but he is also a target for anyone who might wish to succeed the king or seize power. When the king dies, the ensuing struggle for the throne puts Merlin in grave danger, and he decides to flee the kingdom. At age 12, with no name, no friends, and no particular skill with a sword, Merlin must learn to survive in a hostile world. He also begins to learn that he possesses unusual abilities — powers that enable him to see into the future and foretell the coming of Arthur, who will eventually become king of a united Britain.

I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s novels of romantic suspense, so I was excited to acquire her first three Arthurian books at a library sale a few years ago. But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed by this book. It’s well-written, and the historical insights into Roman Britain are fascinating…it just moves so slowly! It seems like the first hundred pages of a not-very-long novel are just about Merlin as a child in the king’s home, where nothing much happens to him, and he spends all day hiding in the ruins of the underground plumbing system. Once he leaves South Wales, the story picks up, and I quite enjoyed the descriptions of battles and political maneuverings among the various claimants to the British throne. I’ll read the remaining books because I already bought them, but I wasn’t as excited by this book as I’d hoped.

Review: The Welsh Girl

The Welsh GirlPeter Ho Davies, The Welsh Girl

Set in North Wales just after D-Day, this novel weaves together the stories of three people who are all struggling with the ways in which the war has made them question their identity. Esther is the eponymous Welsh girl who works as a barmaid but dreams of life outside her tiny village. When an English soldier takes advantage of her, Esther has to face her future and determine what kind of woman she will become. Karsten is a young German soldier who has surrendered to the English and must now live with the shame of being a coward; as he sees the Allies reclaim more and more of Europe, he also questions his belief in German supremacy. Meanwhile, Rotheram is a German man with a Jewish father who fled Germany in the early days of the war. He now works as a translator for the British and interrogates German prisoners, but he is conflicted about where his loyalties truly lie.

Lately I’ve been really interested in books that are set during World War II, so I had high hopes for this novel. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations, which is largely the fault of the cover blurb. I thought the book would mostly focus on the relationship between Esther and Karsten and the obstacles they’d have to face being on opposite sides of a war. But while a relationship does grow between them, it doesn’t actually happen until well after the halfway point of the novel. Most of the book is just setting up the conflict, as Esther’s background, the Welsh attitude toward the war, and Karsten’s military career are described in plodding detail. I wouldn’t actually call the book romantic at all — which is not a problem, except that the blurb led me to believe otherwise! I do think that the novel raises some interesting thoughts relating to World War II and war in general, so it was probably worth reading for those insights. (There was also a line near the end of the book about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen that got me right in the gut.) But overall, although I wanted to like this book, it just didn’t do anything for me.