This Rough Magic (Mary Stewart)

July 17, 2015 Book Reviews 20 ★★★★½

This Rough Magic (Mary Stewart)This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart
Published by McNally & Loftin on June 28, 1964
Genres: Romantic suspense
Format: Hardcover
Source: my personal collection
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Also by this author: Airs Above the Ground, The Gabriel Hounds, Nine Coaches Waiting
When Lucy Waring's sister Phyllida suggests that she join her for a quiet holiday on the island of Corfu, young English Lucy is overjoyed. Her work as an actress has temporarily come to a halt. She believes there is no finer place to be "at liberty" than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare's The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.But the peaceful idyll does not last long. A series of incidents, seemingly unconnected - but all surrounded in mystery - throws Lucy's life into a dangerous spin, as fear, danger and death - as well as romance - supplant the former tranquility. Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide... And without warning, she finds she has stumbled into a nightmare of strange violence, stalked by shadows of terror and sudden death.


This Rough Magic is one of my four or five favorite Mary Stewart novels.* In addition to Stewart’s gift for suspense, the book offers an engaging heroine, a dark and brooding hero (but not too dark or brooding), the magic and mystique of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Mediterranean loveliness of the Greek island of Corfu, all blended together into a nearly-perfect summer read.

Let’s start with the setting, which Stewart evokes with skill. I can envision each locale, from the secluded beach where Lucy swims with a friendly dolphin to the sun-drenched rocks of the headlands and the scented pine forests on the hills above the bay. The Castello, a castle of sorts owned by Lucy’s Italian brother-in-law but currently rented by a reclusive actor, is gothically grotesque, but its lovely, overgrown rose garden is gorgeous; I can almost smell the roses. Stewart excels at descriptive writing; her depiction of the island’s celebration of its patron saint, St. Spiridion, is at once vivid, humorous, and moving.

She draws her characters equally well. Lucy, an actress whose first big break just folded under her, is complex enough to be interesting; she can be practical but is apt to throw herself into things, particularly trying to protect the dolphin. She tends to jump to conclusions and is fiercely protective of what she cares about, whether that is her pregnant sister Phyllida or the dolphin, which someone may be trying to kill. This brings her into conflict with Max, the aforementioned famous actor’s son, who is in turn quite protective of his father, and rather rude toward Lucy as a result. Godfrey Manning, another neighbor who is also renting a villa from the Forlis, is intriguing and more approachable; he’s a photographer working on a book, and the dolphin is one of his subjects. I’ll leave it to you to discover which of these gentlemen most captures Lucy’s interest. Rest assured, though, that there is no love triangle in the traditional sense. And the romance overall is quite subtle by modern standards.

Sir Julian Gale – Max’s father – is a delight. Think Ian McKellan or perhaps Alec Guinness; he’s charming, witty, urbane, and charismatic. It’s Sir Julian who brings in the Shakespearean element; his theory is that Corfu is the island of Shakespeare’s Tempest, and St. Spiridion the inspiration for Prospero. Sir Julian backs his theory up quite persuasively, pointing out various aspects of the island’s climate, geology, flora and fauna, and traditions that seem to be echoed in the play. He certainly convinces me – I nearly wrote a paper on it back in college, but lacked other supporting evidence at the time. Someday I’ll follow it up.

But fascinating as the Shakespearean/Tempest motif is, the focus of the book is on suspense. Stewart builds it masterfully, beginning slowly as Lucy gets the first intimations of something awry. Gradually the pace quickens, and the wrongnesses begin to add up: the attack on the dolphin, a drowned boy, the mystery of Sir Julian’s presence on the island (and absence from London), another death. By the final quarter of the book, events are happening quickly, and Stewart takes us from one fraught scene to another, the revelations coming thick and fast and the danger mounting precipitously. It’s perfectly timed and executed, and always keeps me turning the pages breathlessly even though I know exactly what’s to come.

I’ve read and loved This Rough Magic several times since high school, when my mother first introduced me to Mary Stewart’s works. If you’ve never read her books, This Rough Magic is an excellent place to start.


*The others, in case you’re wondering, are Airs Above the Ground, The Gabriel Hounds, Touch Not the Cat, and Nine Coaches Waiting, though most of the others are very good as well. I also love the first two in her Arthurian series, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills.


Challenges: COYER #2: A cover that is at least 51% blue


Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • COYER Scavenger Hunt - Summer 2015

20 Responses to “This Rough Magic (Mary Stewart)”

  1. Heidi

    Looks like a perrenial classic for you. I am not familar with this author, but your review has me curious. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I loved Holt in high school but have never wanted to re-read her for some reason, though I’ve re-read Stewart steadily for years. I have a book of Eden’s short stories that I love, but haven’t read any of her full-length novels. Daniels is new to me; maybe I should check her out!

  2. Penny Marks

    Haven’t heard about Mary Stewart. Thank you for your review site:) Love it!

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      They did make a movie of The Moon-Spinners, starring Hayley Mills, but I can tell from the description that they changed a lot in terms of the plot. I may watch it someday, though – if I can find a copy! I re-read The Moon-Spinners recently, and loved it again; I need to write up the review! Glad you enjoyed this review.

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I love Nine Coaches Waiting, too. I can’t remember any more which one I read first, but it might have been that one. Glad you enjoyed the review!

  3. Tressa @ Wishful Endings

    Nine Coaches Waiting has been on my list of very top favorite reads for some time. I’ve always meant to read her other books and haven’t. So glad you shared this because it reminded me. I’ll definitely make sure to add the other books you list to be tbr.

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      Oh, you should definitely read her other books! 🙂 So happy to find another Stewart lover – there are several of us around!

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      Stewart wrote romantic suspense in the 1950s to 1970s. She was often grouped with Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, but I personally think she’s better – less gothic than the other two and closer to modern romantic suspense (without the heat.) I have never really wanted to re-read Holt or Whitney, while I love re-reading Stewart.

      She also wrote one of the major Arthurian retellings, a 4-volume series that begins with The Crystal Cave. The first book is really about Merlin, not Arthur. They are excellent, more historical fiction than medieval fantasy, and set in the post-Roman Britain of the “historical” Arthur (if there ever was such a person) rather than the high-medieval knights-in-plate-armor world favored by Sir Thomas Malory and other late medieval writers. (Sorry. In my teens and 20s, I was a huge King Arthur fan, and this is the series that launched me into researching the “real” Arthur. I’ve still got about 30 or 40 books on the topic.)

  4. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Lovely review of this book, one of the first Stewarts I read when I discovered her last year thanks to Gudrun’s Tights. In case you hadn’t heard,Chicago Review Press is re-issuing Mary Stewart’s novels! I have the latest (Madam Will You Talk) on my shelf to read and review very soon.
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    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      Oh yay! I have collected some of them in (mostly beat-up) hardcovers and omnibuses, but I’d love to have some shiny new copies. Or maybe ebooks, for greater portability (and to keep my older HCs nice.)