Pretty much everything here originally appeared at my actual blog: By Singing Light. I particularly focus on upper middle-grade and young adult books. I also enjoy adult genre books, especially speculative fiction.
Stormy Petrel, published in 1991, is the latest book (chronologically) that I’m looking at in this series. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I liked revisiting it quite a bit–there’s some interesting stuff about gender and genre that I think Stewart couldn’t have written earlier–but I also found that it doesn’t necessarily have the staying power of some of her earlier books (for all of their problems).
Rose Fenemore is an English tutor at a fictional Cambridge college, Haworth. There’s no other real Jane Eyre connection, just the name, but it just shows that Mary Stewart couldn’t resist an allusion. But she isn’t just an English tutor. She also, secretly, writes science fiction under the penname HUGH TEMPLAR (I cannot make this up).
So, I am having a couple of different reactions to the whole sci-fi thing. When I was reading Stormy Petrel, I was also reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr. And so the whole question of women writing SF and what name they write it under and male pseudonyms was and is pretty alive for me. Stewart doesn’t get into the gender part, merely says that Rose writes SF “Under another name, of course” and then goes on to give the (male) name. I think it’s maybe the “of course” that gets me.
But also, now that I’m thinking about it later, why on earth is the fact that Rose writes SF such a big deal? I mean–maybe I’m being naive, but this book is set contemporary to its publishing date. Does she really have to hide her writing to the degree she does? Would Cambridge care that much if one of their tutors turned out to have a sideline in spaceships? I don’t know, maybe they would. I am hardly an expert on the subject! It’s just an attitude I associate with an earlier era.
Regardless, the whole question of pseudonyms and hiding the SF writing does combine with Stewart’s general sensibility to give Stormy Petrel a very old-fashioned feeling. Assuming the action takes place in the late 80s or early 90s, you’d hardly know it, except for the fact that Ewen Mackay gets mixed up with drugs. There’s also a very tacked-on romance–tacked-on even by late Stewart standards. We barely get a sense of who Neil is, aside from some vague niceness.
As is standard with Stewart’s books, there’s an element of mystery here. Rose’s rented cottage is invaded by two unknown men (she reacts MUCH more calmly than I would), one of whom turns out to be Ewan Mackay, and the other Neil (under an assumed name). There’s a question of who inherits the estate on the island, with Ewan believing he’s an illegitimate child and therefore entitled to something. However, he’s a more pitiable character than a scary one. Rose and Neil have to try to foil his plans and recover the things he’s stolen from the house; there’s not a huge sense of urgency here, somehow.
What I’ve said so far probably makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book. In fact, I did like reading it quite a lot! Stewart has that great sense of place and gift for homey description. And Rose herself is a nice addition to Stewart’s heroines, even if she’s not as vivid as some of the others. It’s just that the strengths are a little diminished somehow, pastel versions of themselves, and so in the end the book isn’t very memorable either on the strength of the mystery or the romantic elements.