If you’ve read my book reviews or lists, you’ll have caught on to the fact that I’m an avid Mary Stewart fan. My mother introduced me to Stewart’s work when I was a teen, and I fell in love with her five Arthurian novels (The Crystal Cave through The Prince and the Pilgrim) as well as the delightful series of romantic travel thrillers at which this British author excelled.
I love them all, but my favourites include The Ivy Tree (1961, superbly-written and one of her more complicated plots), The Gabriel Hounds (1967), Touch Not the Cat (1976), Stormy Petrel (1991) and Rose Cottage (1997, her last published work). These tightly-written suspense tales feature smart, adventurous women who set off to exotic locales in which nefarious criminals menace, mysteries need solving, and dashing heroes, well, dash — all amidst ancient Provençal ruins, Greek islands, or crumbling palaces in the Lebanon. The stories are well-researched, swiftly-paced and always end happily. Just what the gothic romance-minded armchair traveller ordered!
I still remember the year I received Thornyhold (1988), my all-time favourite, for Christmas. That evening, after the merrymaking was over and comfy pj’s were donned, I snuggled into our plush wing chair and lost myself in the magical world of English country cottages, white witches and herb-filled stillrooms. The next day, I read it again. Every year or so, when the moment is quiet and I can’t face the stack of unread new novels which sit mockingly beside my bed, I open one of Stewart’s well-thumbed paperbacks and travel down those dusty, lavender-strewn paths once again.
Sadly, there will never be another new work from this beloved author. Lady Mary Stewart, who was born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow in 1916 and whose husband was a knight, died in 2014. But, as I was thrilled to recently discover, there was yet one book in Stewart’s romantic suspense canon that I’d never heard of, let alone read!
The Wind Off the Small Isles is a novella first published in 1968. At under 100 pages, this slim work has long been out of print and was never published in North America, which accounts for why I didn’t know of its existence. To celebrate what would have been the author’s 100th birthday, her longtime publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, reissued the novella earlier this year in a new hardcover edition. I ordered a copy at once; it’s available here. In no time flat, this little novel flew with the wind across The Pond and landed on my doorstep as an early Yuletide gift to myself.
I read the book yesterday in one sitting (whilst enjoying tea and a few coconut-covered “snowballs”) and was not disappointed. The story features another of Stewart’s signature settings – this time, the Canary Islands, where lava fields stretch barrenly to azure seas and dragon trees ooze red sap. (Walnut Whips strike again! I read this book just a few days after writing about these trees and their dragon’s blood resin.) A century-old tragedy, a perilous disaster, pirates and a new love all play out in the story’s compact but efficiently-told arc; Stewart even references a character I recognized from a previous novel. The author’s adept descriptive skill transported me to the tropical island, and I could taste the salt air and feel the gritty volcanic ash on my skin.
The Wind Off the Small Isles, which can also (rarely) be found in used paperback, is a masterful little story that any fan will want to own. I’m so grateful that the publisher decided to give this work another go. Should you read it, however, I offer two words of caution:
1. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the back cover. Perplexingly, it gives everything away.
2. Once you start reading Lady Mary’s works, you won’t be able to stop.
Speaking of Stewart’s canon, there are also three children’s novels and a collection of poetry which I have yet to track down: The Little Broomstick (1971), Ludo and the Star Horse (1974), A Walk in Wolf Wood (1980) and Frost on the Window: Poems (1990).
Happy Travelling, Happy Reading!