A couple of weeks ago I started reading Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I've been dipping into the collection ever since, which contains eight short stories written in the same vein as (or so I understand as I've not yet read it) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. They are meant to give the history of fairies and English magic written in a Victorian style. Why does a Victorian setting seem so perfect for stories about fairies and magic? Although I do mean to read JS&MN, I didn't really have any plans to pick up this particular short story collection until Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge came along (one book down, four to go).
Part of the reason I was looking forward to this challenge was the fact I rarely, if ever, read books that would fit into the fantasy/fairy tale genre. I'm generally very predictable when it comes to books, and I find myself falling into the same reading patterns over and over again. So much so, that I actually sort of approached this collection, even the individual stories with the slightest bit of trepidation. I like to be firmly grounded in the story I am reading, and anything slightly off kilter or abstract and I start feeling edgy. Silly, I know. Once I got into each story, though, I found myself quite enjoying each different adventure. And there's something very charming about the world that Susanna Clarke creates--not too strange or unusual, but still not quite real either.
I already wrote about the title story, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu". I think it is my favorite story in the collection. I also really liked "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse". It's the shortest story, and shares the same world created by Neil Gaiman in Stardust, which I read for last year's challenge. The setting is Wall, where quite literally a wall separates our world from the land of Faerie. The opening in the wall is guarded by two burly men and it's not often someone makes their way across, but we're concerning ourselves with the Duke of Wellington here.
"In 1819 the proudest man in all of England was, without a doubt, the Duke of Wellington. This was not particularly surprizing; when a man has twice defeated the armies of the wicked French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, it is only natural that he should have a rather high opinion of himself."
The Duke only spent one night in Wall, but in that one night he managed to quarrel with the village and specifically with the proprietress of The Seventh Magpie, Mrs. Pumphrey.
"It began with a general dissatisfaction on both sides at the other's insolent behaviour, but it soon resolved itself into a skirmish over Mrs. Pumphrey's embroidery scissars."
How can I not appreciate a story that involves embroidery scissors, especially when they'll come in handy when the Duke finds himself on the other side of the wall in Faerie!
"On Lickerish Hill" is a dark retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin complete with Suffolk dialect (which took a bit of getting used to, though I thought it was very effective in the end). Each story has it's own distinct flavor, and I wish now I had taken notes as after a while everything seems to meld together. There is a thwarted lover in "Mrs. Mabb". "Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower" is written in the form of a diary. "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" came complete with footnotes (which I got a kick out of and actually enjoyed reading each note). "Antickes and Frets" featured Mary Queen of Scots (and more embroidery!). And "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner" was about the famous Raven King and was very humorous (even fairies can sometimes be got the better of).
All in all I enjoyed this collection very much. For once I even got the Shakespearean references (A Midsummer Night's Dream--another read from last summer!). Occasionally Clarke would mention where the reference to a story came from and I am wondering what is true and what is fiction as the collection is passed off as an actual history of the development of magic in the British Isles. This just goes to show how lacking I am in this area of literature. I've decided to switch from fairy tales to a book with a more mythological slant. Next I'm reading Betsy Tobin's Ice Land. The book flap describes it as, "Infused with the rich history and mythology of Iceland, Betsy Tobin's new novel is a moving meditation on desire and the nature of belief and the redemptive power of the earth." Unless I change my mind my next story is going to come from Serbian author, Zoran Zivkovic's, Steps Through the Mist. "In this intriguing mosaic novel connected by a mysterious, obscuring mist, five women of different ages face off with fate." The author has been compared to Calvino, Kafka and Borges, so it should be an interesting story collection.