Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books are certainly very different to her romance/mystery ones. It’s much more the world of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset than the sort of world her heroines inhabit in the modern stories: one of uncertain magic and prophecy, of blood and hatred and death. And it comes out much less positive about female characters. There are few prominent ones, and even mentions of women tend to be dark portents and shadows on the future Merlin foresees. But I do love the Welsh background, the Welsh names, the way that the different races of Britain are all represented here and are all Arthur’s subjects.
It’s doubly difficult to read this with any sense of suspense, though. First, Merlin knows what’s going to happen, at least broadly, and secondly, it’s the Arthurian legend. You can do surprising things with it, but Stewart sticks fairly close to the sources, which leaves very little room for surprising anyone who knows the source texts well. She plays the tropes relatively straight, too, and telegraphs all the usual causes of strife in Camelot well in advance. Arthur isn’t even acclaimed as king yet until the very end of the book, and already there’s foreshadowing for various betrayals. I really must look up Bedwyr’s involvement with Gwenhwyfar more — several modern tellings align him with her, and I can’t remember what might spark that.
Still, Stewart’s writing is good, and the sense of atmosphere she brings to the more far-flung settings for her romance/mystery stories is equally strong here, in the cold and damp corners of Britain. Her writing in this book reminds me a lot of Sutcliff, which can only be a compliment.
I do hope she’s more subtle with Morgause, Morgian and Gwenhwyfar, when they appear properly, though.