Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other StoriesThe Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the fifth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I've had it practically since it came out, so I thought now was a good time to get around to it.

This is a companion to Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it's not necessary to have read the novel to appreciate these short stories. They're set in the same version of the world where magic is real and fairies walk among people. The stories read as if they were written in the same Victorian era.

The only story related to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," which explains a minor point from that book. It focuses mostly on the titular ladies. Johnathan Strange puts in an appearance, but as an antagonist. It tells of the friendship of three women, and how they magically protect one another.

The second story, "On Lickerish Hill," is similar to the story of Rumpelstiltskin most of us are familiar with. It tells of a young woman whose mother, in a fit of pique, tells her suitor she's capable of spinning a whole skein a flax in a day. After he marries her, he asks her to prove it, but she can't spin at all. A little man shows up who'll do it for her, and she'll get out of payment if she can guess his name.

"Mrs. Mabb" is your classic tale of fairy enchantment and entrapment, like Tam Lin. A young woman's handsome fiancé goes to visit the mysterious Mrs. Mabb, and doesn't leave again. So she makes it her mission to go to the house. But, every time, she goes into some kind of trance where she wanders for a long while, and doesn't remember the next day. Everything and everyone conspires against her seeing her fiancé again, but she's determined.

"The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is set in Stardust's Wall, a border between fairy and human lands. The Duke of Wellington crosses the wall to go get his horse, and comes across a woman embroidering. As he watches, the things she's embroidering come true. The last scene is of a knight in chain mail coming along to kill him, then the woman leaves, and he has to think fast to save himself.

"Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" tells a story through a letter and diary entries. A new parson comes to a poor village, where he meets an uncle he never knew he had. But that uncle is a fairy, and not a very nice one. He's kidnapped a young woman from the village to nurse his child. Mr. Simonelli frees her, and plots to stop his uncle from taking one of the pretty young ladies of the village for a wife.

The main characters in "Tom Brightwind" are a fairy who isn't quite so malicious and a Jewish man. They come across a sad little town, run by a man whose ambition is greater than his motivation. Tom agrees to build a bridge over the river dividing the town, and, being a fairy, has to do it extravagantly and dramatically.

"Antickes and Frets" is a fairy tale about Mary, Queen of Scots, and her attempts to use a friend's power with embroidery to undo the Queen who exiled her. But Mary isn't a very good friend, so her attempts backfire spectacularly.

"John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner" is about the Raven King often mentioned Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This doesn't showcase his power and might, though. It shows the dangers of hubris, and how no one can consider himself above reproach. While out hunting, Uskglass disturbs the camp of a charcoal burner, and changes his pig into a salmon. So the charcoal burner appeals to a succession of religious saints to teach Uskglass a lesson.

This is, overall, a creative collection, hinting at a deeper world in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Most of the stories are retellings of various fairy tales. Instead of a modern setting, though, it's in an alternate Victorian England. It can be enjoyed without having read that brick of a novel, but it did make me want to reread the book. The print edition of this book is illustrated by Charles Vess, which is always a treat.

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