Mary Stewart, In Fond Memory

Mary Stewart, the extremely successful writer of romantic suspense, has died at the age of 98. 

I scrolled back through the hundreds and hundreds of reviews of her books on Goodreads and Amazon. This is impressive since all of these books were written decades before the Internet and when computers were housed in specially built warehouses. Most of the reviews were three stars and above but I noticed a few comments about how unoriginal the stories were. People, please! She invented the genre. That’s like reading Mary Shelley and complaining about how unoriginal her monster is.

Besides romantic suspense she also wrote stories based on the legend of Arthur. The Crystal Cave, the first of these, is one of my favorites but I never loved those books as I loved the romances. Those were the ones I read over and over, and they were the ones I carried about with me throughout my life as souvenirs of my younger self. The somewhat fuzzy picture above shows the ones that have survived; the paperback of My Brother Michael at the lower right is the original 1960 paperback edition. I bought it new.

I was tremendously romantic as a teenager and these books had it all: handsome strangers, mysteries, exotic locations (which I defined as ‘anywhere not New Jersey’) and intelligent heroines who ended up with the hero at the end. They were also, and I give myself points for recognizing this at the time, much better written than all the clone knockoffs who copied her. The descriptions, particularly of Greece, were so evocative I can still recall the scene by the dusty Greek roadside in The Moon-Spinners when Nicola gets off the bus and decides to follow the kingfisher up the path.

Time has moved on for me (and it would be bloody surprising if it hadn’t!) so the books I loved most as a teenager are not the ones I appreciate most now. My favorite, hands down, used to be Nine Coaches Waiting. Unfortunately, Jo Walton’s Suck Fairy has paid the plot a visit: it’s a bit depressing now to have the hero solve all the heroine’s financial problems by saving her by marriage, and the Cinderella ball scene is a bit over the top. To be fair, the heroine calls the reader’s attention to it, and there’s a touch of parody in the entire plot. I can see a reread in my immediate future—as soon as I can get my hands on a copy since mine has vanished for the fourth or fifth time. These are available in ebook, but somehow I can’t, just can’t, read her in that format.

My favorite now, and the favorite of a great many of her readers, is The Ivy Tree. This is beautifully written and set in the author’s Scotland by Hadrian’s Wall. Stewart’s command of the plot details is complete and even when you know what the twist is, you admire how she pulls it off. I still, and this is going on for fifty years ago, remember my astonishment at the denouement. The heroine is terrifyingly intelligent and all the supporting characters are fully realized, although the villain is a bit cardboard. If you haven’t read this, you’re missing something.

So suspend a little disbelief and a few feminist principles and read Mary Stewart. She will always be worth it.


David Weber Despite Himself

David Weber is a very successful author, published by both Tor and Baen, and responsible for the long running Honor Harrington series and the Safehold series.

I enjoy Weber’s space operas in the same spirit I enjoy O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin seafaring novels. I may never be able to tell a mizzenmast from jib sail or a superdreadnaught from a tractor beam but I trust Weber to control all the details and simply take it on trust. You can generally assume each book (as with O’Brian’s) will end with an annihilating battle at sea or in space with cannons and swords and lasers and missles and countermissles: lots of booms and explosions. They are fun.

So there are certain things Weber does very very well:

The Technology: As far as I can tell, he has a coherent and insanely detailed control of the technology, the new technology that trumps the old technology and why this is so and he tells the reader all about it. It’s space opera for equipment freaks and people who worry about how a Warzawski sail really works. With diagrams and appendices. Safehold is still at the sailing ships and steam engines level, with even more detail.

The Story Premises: They hook you in. What if there was a woman starship commander? What if humanity was forced to hide all technology from their worst enemy for a thousand years and what if a dissident group had created a monolithic church dedicated to stopping all technology? What if a robot with the memories of a human was the only hope to bring humanity out of the pseudo-dark ages so they could defeat their enemy?

The Battle Scenes: Swords and ships and armies, soldiers fighting with guns and soldiers fighting with pikes, all relating back to the ship designs, the advantages and flaws of the technology and a generous amount of blood and gore: all this draws in the reader and explains why his books sell and sell and sell.

And there are certain things Weber does not do well:

Tell Not Show: There are pages and pages and yet more pages of what one reader called “committee meetings” where the characters sit and talk about what happened off screen and endlessly rehash decisions. These are compounded, in the Safehold series, by sophmoric and tail-chasing religious discussions, all of which end with the characters getting a blessing to do what they are going to do anyway: start a war, save the world, save humanity (but kill lots of people along the way). Many readers skip these. Weber is a lay Methodist preacher. It shows.

The Characters: They are all the same. All the good guys are very very good and make decisions for the right moral reasons (after agonizing, see above). They have happy marriages. They do not fart, shit, make mistakes, or have affairs. The sex (what there is of it) is awkwardly written. All the good guys have the same sense of humor, and in fact all the characters speak with the same tone; there’s no differentiation between women and men. Weber’s women might as well be men, and in the Safehold series his main character is a woman for the first 50 pages before changing into a man, a condition the author is obviously far more comfortable with. One of the most awkward scenes is her/his first erection, and Weber moves quickly away from the entirely fascinating gender swap idea to having him/her “turn that function off”. There’s a subsequent (4 books later) encounter with a prostitute (in the line of duty of course) but it happens offstage although there’s a committee meeting about it later.

Oh, Those Names: Weber’s favorite letters of the alphabet are K, Q, H, Y, and Z. The last Safehold book had a name glossary that ran 66 pages, full of Zahloh Tymyozha, Stywyrt Sygzbee, Dahnyld Rahzmahn, Zhairymiah Mohzlyr and thousands more. His readers hate it. I hate it, because when I read I pronounce names in my head and everytime I run into one of these I have to go back and sound it out. This throws me out of the story.

The Dialog, or getting from A to B: The good guys in both the Honor series and the Safehold cannot enter a room without banter. It’s heavy-handed and tedious and it can go on for a page and a half of ‘Why do I think you aren’t here to just to drink my scotch?’ ‘Because you’ve known me from childhood and you know how low I am?’ Eventually they get out of the doorway, sit down, and have a committee meeting. The banter or preliminary chat can go on for a page or so and it is exactly the same tone for every set of characters. I was pleasantly surprised reading the last Safehold novel because the intro banter for these scenes had been reduced to a paragraph or so. I suspect Weber had an encounter with an editor. This might explain why publication was delayed five months. The bad guys do not banter, which is a clear tipoff they are bad guys but if they are married they are monogamous and happy although prone to plotting world domination. If they are single they are into greed and torture.

Data Dumps: Huge data dumps, in prologues and throughout the books. Historical background, ordinance, character histories, lumps and lumps of it. He’s never created a fact he hasn’t shared.

Phoning It In: The Honor Harrington universe (and series plot) has grown so huge it has spawned several sub-series. Chapters of the previously published books are included in these new books without notice to the reader, giving an odd sense of deja-read or haven’t-we-done-this-before? He’s also roped in several other less successful authors to write in his universe. These books will include one story by Weber and four or five by the others. The stories are of varying quality; in the last collection the weakest story was done by Weber and was an ill-written juvenile.

David Weber is a great example of an author whose success has outgrown his quality control. He has the ideas,  the world-building and the plot. What he doesn’t have is restraint: cut the repetitive chatter, get to the action. I suspect part of the problem is his writing methodology because to keep up with his enormous output he uses voice recognition software and dictates the books. He needs an editor to excise the excess verbiage and move the story along. Another part of the problem, for his readers and fans, is his success. Why tinker with what people so obviously want? But if you check the reviews of the Safehold series on Amazon you can see the ratings dropping and dropping as the series progresses. He’s obviously still selling well but he’s gradually losing his audience.

So will I buy his next book? Yes. When Weber is at the top of his game he can be tremendously enjoyable. Even when I skip pages and pages there are still flashes of the old Weber buried here and there. That makes it worthwhile. The problem with Weber is you know how good he can be and you want him to do it again.