To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written. Beyond that, you cannot categorize… ‘Storyteller’ is an old and honorable title and I’d like to lay claim to it.
Mary Stewart (1916 - 2014) is a British novelist, known for her significant contributions to multiple genres. She was of the most prominent - and critically-acclaimed - creators of the romantic thriller. Stewart then went on to write the Merlin series, a best-selling blend of history and fantasy.
Her romances and suspense books aren’t totally relevant to an ostensibly fantasy site, but they’re damn good books - and show how you can breathe new life into a genre by lifting/learning from others. Stewart is credited as one of the primary inventors of the 'romantic thriller', with young women facing peril in exotic locations.
Her books are also notable for a few different reasons:
Incredible scenery. The scenic descriptions are a masterclass, you can practically breathe the air. They’re worth reading for potential writers (especially of fantasy), as they bring landscape and location to life. Stewart took setting seriously, and noted that “research is most useful when dealing with place rather than action. After all, you're inventing almost all of the story anyway.”
Terrific heroines. Her heroines, despite the era and the genre, are smart, funny and witty. They’re self-aware and fun, and very rarely reactive - the adventures come because they sought them out. Quoth her obit in the Guardian: “Stewart's stories were narrated by poised, smart, highly educated young women who drove fast cars and knew how to fight their corner.”
Funny. Stewart’s characters are smart and snarky, and even a little goofy. Despite Gothic structure, the books don’t feel staid or ponderous - they are fast-moving, with a good sense of humour.
A few favourites, for all the reasons above: The Moon-Spinners (1962, Crete), This Rough Magic(1964, Corfu), Airs Above Ground (1965, Austria). For a short, sweet introduction to her writing, The Wind Off the Small Isles (Lanzarote, 1968) is a rare novella - it was rediscovered and re-issued two years ago for the first time in almost 40 years.
Even her romances have a touch of fantasy about them - whether that’s a spooky dream, an improbable dolphin, a hint of a ghost, or an impossible bird-sighting (this is a thing in The Moon-Spinners). The ISFDB classifies, generously, Thornyhold and Touch Not The Cat as fantasy. Which is generous, but those two novels do dial up the psychic/dreams/Gothic elements a bit more.
Yes, but this is about fantasy, get to the Merlin
All of the above traits apply to her fantasy as well. When Stewart plunged across genres after writing dozens of top-selling romantic suspense novels, her publishers - and readers! - were concerned. What they soon learned is that “the style, the descriptions of place, and the good storytelling, they [were] still there.” In fact, they made for some damn good fantasy.
“The character of Merlin appealed to me because he'd never been dealt with before - except in quite a different way by T. H. White who made him very much the traditional medieval enchanter.”
The Crystal Cave undeniably sits in the shadow of The Once and Future King - but Stewart takes a very different approach to T.H. White. Stewart had no interest in medieval fiction, and took a deliberately Roman Britain tack to the story. She also, as noted above, wasn’t that bothered with Arthur. Merlin, however, was a font of inspiration. White treated him as a ‘traditional medieval enchanter’ and “There is very little information about him in Malory, really, apart from the odd rather stupid appearance when he disguises himself as a small child or old man.” That made for an ideal combination: a ready-made plot and an unexplored character.
The Crystal Cave (1970) follows Merlin’s childhood and coming of age. He is the illegitimate son of a princess, in a Britain fragmented and leaderless following Rome’s departure. Merlin has visions - gifts - which he is taught to harness as a youth. Following his visions, Merlin gets caught up in a quest to unite Britain: to bring Britain together in the face of the Saxon threat. For Arthur fans, The Crystal Cave is essentially the ultimate prequel, and it ends before more Arthurian retellings even begin.
“The Crystal Cave arose from her fascination with Roman-British history. The unexpected switch at first alarmed her publishers – she was, unusually, published by the same firm, Hodder & Stoughton, for her entire career, never using an agent – but the book was a No 1 bestseller for weeks.” - Guardian
Although Stewart never intended to write a sequel (indeed, the Merlin series was the only time in her long career where she didn’t write stand-alones), and she couldn’t get Merlin out of her head. The Hollow Hills (1973) follows Merlin as he raises, protects, and tutors the young Arthur. For those expecting The Sword in the Stone, this is radically different:
I invented most of the story, apart from those basic relationships that are firmly laid down in tradition, such as Guinevere being Arthur's wife. Certainly I invented almost all of my Merlin story.
Stewart notes that grails had been done to death by this point, so The Hollow Hills is about swords instead - something that’ll bring joy to our epic fantasy hearts.
The Last Enchantment (1979) is the third and final Merlin story - for real, this time:
When I wrote each book it was to be the last. When you do that, you lay some traps for yourself. You kill off people you wish you hadn't killed off; you keep people alive that you don't want; and you turn them in the wrong direction, as it were, which can be darned awkward if you want to go on with the story.
Stewart is hilariously open in interviews about how difficult this made her life. She later noted that, if you’re going to be winging a series one book at a time, it is best not to have a prophetic character.
Arthur reigns, and Merlin still aids him - but more as an advisor, or even spy. His magic is fading, and he relies more on his intellect and cunning. (Not to spoil, but his relationship with Niniane, his apprentice, is very different in Stewart’s interpretation as well - she refuses to let him be the victim, and his destiny is very much a matter of his own choosing.)
It ends, needless to say, as it should. And I’ll spoil no more.
Stewart revisited Arthurian legend with two other books.
This Wicked Day is Mordred’s story. Another brave decision - and different perspective - Stewart attempts to reclaim one of folklore’s greatest villains:
I think Mordred's been given a jolly hard deal as a character. There's no evidence whatsoever that he was a villain, and I don't believe he was. When Arthur went to the continent, he made Mordred his regent - at least in tradition, although historically the whole expedition is a piece of rubbish. So I thought, well, Mordred cannot have been the traitor.... he's been made into the traitor and the lover of Guinevere simply because the medieval poets needed that particular convention for their stories.
In the same interview, Stewart later admitted that Mordred never came as easily to her as Merlin. “I am Merlin”, she explains - she had lived with the character so long, and so well. Mordred, by contrast, was a more remote figure. It is also, unlike the Merlin books, written in the third person (a rarity for her). Very much for folks that like understanding the ‘bad guy’.
The Prince and the Pilgrim is a (slightly awkward) fusion of ALL THE GENRES. Imagine a romantic suspense, but with Arthurian trappings. A young knight and a young pilgrim wind up searching for the Holy Grail. Morgan Le Fey is involved. Love is in the air. Etc.
She was Lady Stewart, as her husband (a prominent geologist) was knighted. But never went by the title.
She met her husband at a fancy dress ball and married him 3 months later. (Spoiler: it worked out.)
Her books are littered with classical allusions. Her well-educated characters banter back and forth with quotes from Blake, Shakespeare, you name it... It isn’t disruptive (you don’t need a PhD to understand wtf is happening), but you can imagine how this ‘shocked’ people as an approach to ‘low-brow’ romance. (And her readers loved it.)