|Title: The Prince and the Pilgrim|
Author: Mary Stewart
Publisher: Fawcett Crest
Synopsis: (from the publisher) Eager, burning and young, Alexander sets off towards Camelot to seek justice from King Arthur for the murder of his father. But he is diverted from his quest by beautiful, sensual Morgan Le Fay, who persuades the young prince to attempt a theft of the Holy Grail
Alice has lived a life of lively adventure, accompanying her father, a royal duke, on his yearly pilgrimage. Now she has come under the protection of a young prince brothers were murdered, a prince who is in possession of an enchanted silver cup believed to be the Holy Grail.
And so the state is set for two young seekers to meet-- and find the greatest treasure of all...
What? What! That is a horrible synopsis. That's so bad and wrong and incorrect I can't even laugh at it the way I laughed at The Hollow Hills synopsis. Thank you for ruining my expectations Fawcett Crest.
Warning for Spoilers
This is the little known tale of Alexander the Orphan (who really isn't an orphan) and Alice the Fair Pilgrim with a stillborn Grail Quest thrown into the mix. In the original legend of Alexander the
Stewart book follows Alexander's legend up until he ends up a prisoner of Morgan Le Fay. Then it goes off the rails in the most horrible way possible. Seriously, all the problems I have had with Stewart's writing manifest themselves in the worst way in this book. And like the Mists of Avalon, I can't even muster up the appropriate level of rage this was so bad.
The story begins with Prince Baudouin, Alexander's father, stopping a Saxon invasion. In thanks for this heroic deed that has protected his lands, King March promptly murders his younger brother just cause. Baudouin's wife flees to her family's lands to raise her son in secrecy. Meanwhile, Alice and her father are on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, as a young child, Alice thinks she sees Jesus (remember this-- it appeared to be important).
Finally an adult, Alexander sets off to meet King Arthur and demand justice for his father's death. He stays at the castle where Morgan Le Fay has been exiled for a night and the next day is injured in an accident when he tries to leave. Morgan herself cares for him, drugs him and then probably rapes him (I'm not positive about this and will explain below). Alexander spends months as her willing servant until Morgan, desperate for a way to overthrow her brother (you'd think we'd learn a reason for her hatred of Arthur in this but then remember that you are reading Mary Stewart and should know better by now) sends him off to steal the Grail that appeared in The Last Enchantment from Nimue.
Meanwhile, Alice and her father have gone on a couple pilgrimages to a holy site in France overseen by the Queen Mother of the Frankish Kings. The man who Alice thought was Jesus (who was a shepherd in Jerusalem when she first met him) is now steward to the Queen Mother of the Franks (cause that's totally plausible). His name is actually Jesus but he tells others to call him Jeshua. On their second visit, the most kingly of the Frankish Kings has just been killed by an invading army and his sons have been murdered by his brothers. All except the youngest who is smuggled away by Jeshua and comes under the protection of Alice and her father (You see the error in the blurb! Do you see it! Alice doesn't come under the prince's protection, he comes under hers!). The prince brings with him a cup which he claims to be the Holy Grail.
And so the stage was set and I was all excited. It seemed all so clear to me. Nimue had hidden the Grail in France and now it was coming back into England and was in danger of falling into Morgan Le Fay's hands. And it was going to blow up into one big conflict that would explain why Morgan went to help Nimue prepare a place for Arthur's healing right before his final battle with Mordred. And Jeshua was actually Jesus and was going to take the Grail up into heaven now that it wasn't needed on earth anymore or leave it someplace safe and protected for Arthur or something. What I was sure about was that this was going to be awesome.
And then I read the worst lines ever.
"Not trickery. It's an honest enough, a matter of faith. You see, Chlodovald-- that's the prince-- believes; the old queen believes; and the brothers here, too. That's the real 'grail,' that belief, even through the actual one must have been broken to fragments hundred of years ago. It's an idea, a symbol, just as it was meant to be on that first evening. That's what my father says, anyway-- and Jesus said so himself, if you remember?"And that was the horrible moment where I realized this book had no plot.
We have just spent two hundred and fifty-three pages building to this moment of conflict around the grail. Two hundred and fifty-three pages only to have Mary Stewart go 'lol! Nope-- conflict is for suckers!' We then have Alexander and Alice happily married and the only conflict is one of Morgan's men trying to take over Alice's dukedom and he's killed by Alexander. March dies of an illness which adds to the anticlimactic-ness of the whole thing. Jeshua is not Jesus and goes on to live as Alice's steward. And nobody gives a shit about what Morgan Le Fay is doing. The end.
Alexander is a turn from what we have been dealing with in Stewart's books so far. Both Merlin and Mordred were extremely intelligent to the point where they (especially Merlin) looked down on others who weren't on their level. Alexander is dumb as bricks. And I say that in reference to a particular trope that makes you wonder how these heroes dress themselves in the morning. Alexander rushes into fights, he stupidly believes that gorgeous women need to be rescued and plain women aren't worth your time. He believes everything Morgan tells him that matches up with his belief system and if she says something he doesn't agree with it'll fly out an ear as soon as she promises she didn't mean it. Upon meeting Alice for the first time, he declares his love for her on sight while I facepalm. It's not even possible to say if he goes through any major growth throughout the course of the story because his affair with Morgan was partially drug induced and his quest to kill March can't go anywhere. The only clue the readers have to a possible change of heart is when Alexander doesn't immediately rush into a fight against the man trying to kill Alice's father when he had happily charged into every previous fight. Which, considering the circumstances I don't think I would really consider that positive growth.
Alice the Fair Pilgrim is fine. It was nice to see Stewart have a different take on women beyond sexually driven amoral women, untouchable holy women and bad mothers. Her story develops on its own completely away from Alexander (as opposed to Nimue who, while awesome, had her story develop completely in the shadow of Merlin's). Alice was smart and reacted with resourcefulness to every situation she was placed in but she was also distinctly feminine with concerns about ruining dresses and slippers made from hard to find fabric and her doting devotion to her father. It was a nice mix of traits that are rarely seen in female characters which made Alice and her story quite enjoyable but made her romance with Alexander rather difficult to believe.
King March is horrible. He murders his brother in a jealous, drunken rage. But then we never hear from him again and he dies at the end of the book due to illness.
Drustan is March's other nephew who he is also jealous of and is also probably sleeping with March's wife. He helps Alexander and his mother escape after March kills Alexander's father. When Alexander decides to go beg Arthur for vengeance, he intends to first go north to ask Drustan to come corroborate his story. This of course makes me wonder what happened with the whole Tristan/Isolde affair in this book but of course we never learn
Uwain is a friend of Alexander's who is injured in Alexander's second fight. He probably has nothing to do with Yvain except for...
Luned is the lady in charge of the castle where Morgan is held prisoner. She has served Morgan for years but knows her lady is plotting treason and doesn't agree. When Alexander starts off on his quest to steal the grail from Nimue, Luned is the one who informs him that he has been drugged and that Morgan is still drugging him. She tried to give him a new wineskin but Alexander throws it in her face and rides off. It is stated that Alexander regrets this decision for many years to come which made me worried that something awful happened to Luned but of course we never hear about her again.
When Uwain showed up in the beginning of the book I didn't bat and eye-- figuring it was just some random name Stewart had picked out. But when Luned (a variation on Lunete) showed up I was convinced that he was going to come back and the Knight of the Lion story was going to play out somehow. My guess was that Uwain was going to come looking for Alexander when nobody had heard from him in forever and that Morgan was going to be some sort of stand-in for Laudine and Uwain was going to chose Luned over her and leave forever instead of just the year thing in the original legend. But of course this book exists for crushing my expectations.
It's a fast and easy read. There is no Merlin to babble on about things the reader doesn't give a shit about and it doesn't have the 3rd person omniscient problems The Wicked Day had. And I was enjoying it until the last fifty pages when it became clear that all these plot lines Stewart had introduced over the course of the story were either going to be left hanging or tie up in the most anti-climatic, gag-worthy way possible. For all that the pacing and the perspective issues have been fixed in this book, Stewart's inability to handle conflict has blown up into a catastrophic mess. 2 Stars.
One the Rape (Trigger Warning)
I'm really not sure about this. Morgan is drugging Alexander to cloud his mind and make him obsess over her. This is an indisputable fact and I normally wouldn't hesitate to call it rape. However, before he even meets Morgan Alexander is fantasizing about her romantically even though he knows she has committed treason against Arthur. It's very likely that Alexander would have willingly gone to Morgan if she hadn't drugged him. He was so very much obsessed with rescuing the beautiful woman from her imprisonment that he would have likely stayed just as long with Morgan, would have still refused to believe Luned when she tried to convince him how wicked Morgan was and wouldn't have broke from the witch until he was far away from her and starting to think about other adventures (as it happened in the text but this also included getting rid of the drugged wine). So I'm really not sure how to qualify this. Definitely bad on Morgan for screwing with Alexander's ability to consent (and I have no doubt she raped many-a-young men before him who would have been more likely to say no) but he probably would have consented anyway so...
Really the only thing I'm sure about is that this was a cheap writing trick by Stewart to allow Alexander to be a manly man and desire Morgan but make him not at fault for the affair as it occurred to keep him pure for Alice. And I know for a fact that trope is gross.