Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: The Wicked Day

The Wicked Day is the fourth and last book in Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga, following the three books that make up her Merlin trilogy.  Stewart's Merlin trilogy is my favorite Arthurian retelling- I read it about five years ago, but I was never able to bring myself to finish the series.  I don't know if this happens for any other Camelot fan, but it's always hard for me to read the last book in an Arthur series because it's very sad and I like to escape that fate as much as possible.

But recently, I looked at my shelf and The Wicked Day begged me to finally pick it up, so I did.  And while the story is sad and fateful, I enjoyed it.

The Wicked Day tells the story of Mordred, Arthur's son by his half-sister Morgause.  He grows up on an isolated island in the Orkneys with foster parents, until Morgause decides she wants to be involved in his rearing so that she can use him as her tool to bring down King Arthur.  She takes Mordred and her other sons with her to Camelot, where Mordred meets his father.  Everyone in Britain knows Merlin's prophecy that Mordred will be Arthur's downfall- but even so, father and son become close confidantes and Mordred struggles against the knowledge that some way, some how, he will be the one to kill his beloved father.

I really enjoyed Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon not only because of the story but because she presented so many of the women in a different light.  I've never quite been able to believe that Morgause/Morgaine was as evil as she was made out to be after reading Bradley's book and now, after reading Stewart's The Wicked Day, I feel so deeply for Mordred as well.  I love authors that do this!  Take a much-maligned, hated person and bring them to life so fully realized and easy to love.

Mordred, for much of the book, doesn't really know his parentage.  He doesn't fit in anywhere and so he learns very early to read other people well and to hold his own counsel.  But he also knows that he would be a good leader, that he has it in him to be a successful king.  It was really fascinating to see Mordred develop as a character, and it was impossible not to feel for the struggle.  It seemed so much like Oedipus; Mordred spends years knowing that he is to be the cause of his father's death, and he tries so hard to avoid this eventuality, but he knows that, truly, he has no choice.

In her afterward to the book, Stewart says she doesn't believe the traditional view that Mordred and Arthur fought on different sides or that Mordred killed Arthur.  She presents evidence to support this, too.  However, as she wrote this book after her Merlin trilogy, which already had set up the story, she had to be true to tradition.  But she refused to make Mordred out as a villain, and so we lucky readers instead are presented with a very complex man.

While I really liked Mordred, I did not buy into the last 50 pages or so of this novel.  I think Stewart rushed the entire conflict between Arthur and Mordred. It was very hard to believe that such a massive misunderstanding could take place in such a short amount of time between two people who knew each other so well.  I couldn't quite suspend disbelief enough.  I think this has more to do with Stewart herself not quite believing her own story.  As I said before, she wrote an afterward stating that she didn't think Mordred and Arthur would fight on different sides.

I am currently trying to finish all the fantasy series I have on my shelves before starting a new series, and The Wicked Day was my first book with that goal in mind.  I'm very glad I read it as it gave me a new perspective on Mordred.  However, it doesn't quite live up to Stewart's Merlin trilogy for me.

I think I've said it before, but it bears repeating:  if you haven't read Stewart's Merlin series (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment), then I highly recommend doing so.  It is wonderful!


  1. I guess if it's like you said and she didn't believe them being on opposite sides and all that, might have played a part in that rushed ending. She just wanted to get it over with

  2. Anonymous3/31/2010

    I never get tired of reading Arthurian tales, and Morgan le Fey and Mordred (there are so many variations aren't there) are probably the most fascinating of the characters that appear.

    I'm impressed with your plan to read all the fantasy books on your shelf before starting new ones. I keep starting the first volume in lots of series without having the time to continue. Which reminds me that I need to re-read Abercrombie's book. I'm soooo slow.

  3. I have to admit that I've only read The Crystal Cave and it's been years since I even did that. Definitely time to return to this series. I love when an author champions a unpopular figure, mythical or historical, and makes you reconsidered your entire attitude towards them.

  4. This is my favorite Arthurian reimagining as well (not that I've read many), but I really enjoyed how she stuck to the basic story we know while giving the main characters such different psychologies and motivations. I've been collecting copies of all four books in hopes of rereading them in the next few years.

  5. I read The Crystal Cave my freshman year of high school and loved it, despite not really being a fan of Arthurian books in general. We also had to read The Once and Future King which I hated... But for some reason I never got around to reading the rest of the books in the series. It seems I should do that, but I'd have to go back and revisit The Crystal Cave first...

  6. I was just thinking about this series on the weekend, having finished a re-read of one of Mary Stewart's children's books, The Little Broomstick. You've encouraged me to give them a try. I did quite enjoy The Mists of Avalon and Nancy Springer's YA books as well.

  7. I love the first three books but, like you, read this one much later on. In fact, I didn't know it existed for the longest time! I have to say that I really didn't like this book nearly as much. I didn't even end up keeping it as I've decided I will go back to pretending there are only three books!

    There is another almost companion novel though it doesn't really talk about Arthur, have you read it? The Prince and the Pilgrim is the name. I don't like it as much either but it is a sweet little story.

  8. Blodeuedd- Yes, I think so, too. Or that she didn't try to make it as believable as it could have been.

    chasingbawa- Yes, Morgan and Mordred are always portrayed as multi-faceted whereas many of the other characters are not, so they are usually quite interesting to read about! And hopefully I stick with my plan :-) Next up in the rotation is Magic Study.

    Claire- I love that, too! I think it's great to see the motivation from the other side.

    Teresa- We both have such good taste! And yes, I am keeping these books for a reread. Not sure if I'll reread The Wicked Day, but DEFINITELY the others.

    Amanda- I know you don't like historical fiction, but I think if you read The Crystal Cave again and like it as much as you did before, then you will enjoy the rest of the series, too.

    Buried in Print- I don't think I know the Nancy Springer books. I will have to look into them! Thanks for the heads up.

    Amy- I didn't know about the companion novel. I'll look into that. And I agree this isn't as good as the previous ones. It as very fatalistic.

  9. Anonymous3/31/2010

    I really enjoyed Stewart's Merlin trilogy, but I must have missed this one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  10. Heehee, I haven't even read one book in this series yet, but I pimp it all over the place every tome someone mentions reading something about Arthur, and always mention how much you loved them. It sounds as though this book suffered a bit in the end because the author had some reservations about sticking to her original storyline. I am curious about this book as well, though I don't own it yet. I am interested in the many layered personality of Mordred, and I think it would be really interesting to see how his fate makes an accomplice of him against his wishes and will. I have also just bought a book about Arthur called The Kingmaking. It is the first in a three part series by Helen Hollick. I kept seeing wonderful reviews of it all over the place and took a chance on it because I am sadly understudied on my Arthurian legend. Have you read any of these yet. If you have, I am wondering how they compare to The Merlin Trilogy. If not, maybe I will be able to recommend them to you someday! Awesome review! You really fleshed out this story for me!

  11. I am presently working my way through 'Mists of Avalon' and I have to say I love Morgaine. She is definitely my favourite character. I will add this series to my TBR as I am new to the Arthurian books and these sound good.

  12. "I love authors that do this! Take a much-maligned, hated person and bring them to life so fully realized and easy to love."

    Yes, me too! I can't believe I call myself a fan of Arthurian retellings and have yet to read this one! Everyone tells me it's one of the best - and you definitely make it sound that way.

  13. Zibilee- Yes, I think Mordred is fascinating and probably much-maligned. I have read the Kingmaking- I joint reviewed it with Blodeuedd a few months ago. I liked it, but haven't read more in the series. I admit that the series that don't include Merlin don't interest me quite as much, and Hollick doesn't include Merlin at all.

    Vivienne- Yes, she is HUGELY different in Mists of Avalon. Everyone is- it's really a great way to rethink people in that book. BUT I didn't like Arthur in that book much. He was a bit lame. He's much better in Stewart's :-)

    Nymeth- Yes, the series is SO good. Definitely my favorite, and I think I have read several.

  14. I'm a budding Mary Stewart fan, but I've never read any of her Arthurian books. I'll have to fix that!

    It seems like a lot of smart women decide to tell Mordred's story sympathetically. I wonder why that is? One my favorite books of all time is The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wien. I also thought I Am Mordred was pretty good.

  15. I LOVE all the book suggestions I am getting in these comments! Definitely going to look up the Winter Prince now!!

  16. I've enjoyed this series as well but have not read this book. Always thought that there are parallels between father and son and not just in terms of temporarily hazy parentage. Like that she is sympathetic and open to a different treatment but am uncertain here if she actually tells the alternative in this book or just hints at the possibility afterwards? Hmm. That would seem an odd choice. Like hedging her bets.

    Did you like this one as much as its predecessors? Come on, tell me? :)

  17. Ahhh, I love Arthurian re-tellings. I'd recommend my favorite, The Mists of Avalon, but you've already read it!

    I have the first two Mary Stewart Merlin Trilogy books on my shelves waiting to be read, oddly enough I have two copies of The Hollow Hills.

  18. Frances- She certainly makes it clear that there is an alternative but as she wrote this book after first setting up Mordred as the "bad guy" in the earlier books, she had to work with that framework. So I think if she could have gone back and redone the Merlin saga, she wouldn't have had Mordred as the bad guy. So no, she doesn't go whole hog with the alternative. I enjoyed the book, but no- it's not as good as its predecessors :-) However, I always think the last book in an Arthurian series is not as good because it's so inevitably sad.

    April- I hope this motivates you to pick up one of those copies off your shelf!

  19. Love, love, love Mary Stewart. I haven't read the series in about 6 years, but you've made me want to go back and read through them all again! Seems like the perfect spring reading goal.

  20. You're hopeless! It seems I can't get away from your blog without having to add to my wishlist! LOL!! I've never heard of this series, but I too enjoy the Arthurian legends, so on the list it goes...

    At least I saw we're getting the same LTER-book, so one less to add!! :)

  21. It's been a good ten years since I read this (more than that, probably), but I remember losing my connection to the story over those last fifty pages. They just didn't ring true for me.

  22. I think you've pinned down what was disappointing in this book--the ending is rushed. It's my least favorite, too. Reading your review and all these comments makes me wonder if she might have been ahead of the trend of taking a wicked character (Elphaba aka Wicked Witch of the West) and giving the backstory about how misunderstood that character was.

  23. I hope it's okay to reopen this; I just finished the book

    While I can understand the criticism of the rushed ending, I think that is what made this book work for me. I know that I was in a hurry to get to the end, even though I it was going to be sad. This, combined with the relatively sparse buildup of the story, added to the sense that the characters' world was spiraling out of control towards the fate I knew was waiting.

    Slower pace and a better explanation would have actually made the story less-believable for me, since it would have ruined the out-of-control feeling. Maybe it was just because I was trying to finish it too, but I completely bought into the fact that no one could stop what was happening.

    And the Epilogue... it hurts me.


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