Friday, March 29, 2019

23. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Image stolen from much better review here.
This is the third and final book in Mary Stewart's trilogy series about Merlin and King Arthur and it took me a long time to get to it.  I held off because I've been trying to find the Coronet version with the same design as the first two I already have.  I finally gave in and just snagged this at Moe's.  I really wish I hadn't waited so long, because I forgot a lot of the first two and had also read the The Once and Future King books in between, so was getting that mixed up with Stewart's interpreration when trying to remember back.

It wasn't a huge deal as The Last Enchantment stands on its own.  This is the chronology that lines up most closely with the Knights of the Round that we know in popular culture and medieval history.  Arthur pulls the sword at the end of the second book and here we have his victories, his consolidation of power in England, Camelot and the betrayal of Guinevere and all that.  Mary Stewart adds and changes a ton from the original source material (not that I know it well; she has a handy afterward where she lays out all the differences).

The Last Enchantment is all about Merlin.  He was the narrator in the first two but the story felt less about him than Arthur and the goings on around him.  Here, though Merlin remains his extremely humble self, and even loses much of his power, it is really his story we are reading here.  He travels all over England, meets cool characters, does some good spying, continues to guide Arthur while encouraging his kingly autonomy, falls in love, gets buried alive, gets to have a brief, wonderful retirement in an ideal British cottage and so on.  It's all very satisfying and quite moving at times.  You get the feeling that Stewart really wanted some nice stuff to happen to Merlin and though there are challenges, she really gives it to him.  He's just a great dude in this book.

I've read quite a few of her other gothic thriller novels and it is really something to compare them.  I don't have enough material, nor enough of an understanding of the gothic genre yet to really understand her work.  What stands out to me is how different the characters behave and think in the Merlin books than they do in the thrillers.  My current belief is that Stewart is a really good writer and she has freedoms with male characters that she did not with female ones.  Merlin is thoughtful, even worrisome and quite romantic, yet he never seems to behave or think in the excessively doubting and anxious way her female characters act and think.  Likewise, there are some serious great ass-kicking moments, both in real physical action but also in psychological and social conflicts.  Stewart is very British and she is up there among the best thriller writers in knowing how to subtly display superiority or high skill in really exciting ways.  I often found this lacking in her gothic thrillers, where the heroines would pull back or be passive while the male secondary character did something bold (though often not subtly).  She clearly has the writing skill.  Was it because these books came later or because the protagonist is male? Again, very unformed and possibly erroneous thoughts but something to keep an eye on as I continue reading her books.

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