Monday, March 31, 2014

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, for the Short Story Quest. The Once Upon a Time Challenge is a reading and viewing event for the four broad genres of fairy tale, fantasy, folklore and mythology. I plan to participate with Quest the First (reading at least five books fitting in any of these genres) and might join in for the June readalong of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

When I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I was literally in love with the book. I wrote three posts about reading the mountain of a book, one for each part, and by the end I was convinced "fantasy couldn't get any better than this, magic couldn't get more original." And I stand by my opinion after this little short story collection as well. Susanna Clarke is a fantastic writer and both the books are definitely worth your time.

The word fantasy brings to mind Tolkien and the whole range of epic fantasy, along with the insanely widespread young adult paranormal genre. What Clarke gives us in her books is something unique in today's world, basically because it is so old-fashioned. She's Neil Gaiman meeting Jane Austen, which is kind of cool.

The stories are not what you'd expect from modern fairy tales at all, but rather, they're written quite archaic and very folksy. The setting for these stories makes them special, because it isn't enchanted toadstools and pretty winged fairies that she talks about, but the eerie unknown magical world full of wicked creatures who excel in trickery and deceit. Faerie, in Clarke's world, is fairyland as it was probably first intended to be - full of the mysterious, inexplicable things that people were afraid of and avoided. While I'm not a big expert on English fairy tales, these did sound like the original, darker and more absurd Grimm's tales - the ones meant for adults, not children.

I don't suppose you need to have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to enjoy this book. If you have read the novel, and if you loved it like I did, you must read this book! If you haven't and are too intimidated by the nine-hundred-something pages, give this a try, to get a glimpse of what she has to offer. The stories:

The Ladies of Grace Adieu - This is the expansion of a footnote from the novel. When Jonathan Strange pays his brother-in-law a visit, he encounters three lady magicians, who chide him for his (Norrell's) skepticism towards the Raven King and his pure old practical magic. It's a good story about the consequences of magic and the place of female magicians in Clarke's alternate London. Also part of the story is a charming short tale of the Raven King from when he was just a Raven Child, setting the scene for the final story.

"Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make you drunk. A successful spell is as potent a loosener of tongues as a bottle of good claret and you will find the morning after that you have said things you now regret." 

On Lickerish Hill - This seemed to me a retelling Rumpelstiltskin, which is easily my favourite Grimm's fairy tale. Realizing these were going to be typical English fairy tales, I decided to read the book English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, which I found on Project Gutenberg. And the very first tale was Tom Tit Tot, an English version of Rumpelstiltskin. So, I should say, On Lickerish Hill is actually a retelling of Tom Tit Tot, involving Faerie and more explicit magic. It's also a first person narration, unlike your usual fairy tale, and the heroine who would have otherwise sounded like a helpless naive thing actually moves the story forward and ends up appearing pretty clever.

Mrs. Mabb - This is a darkly fantastical story about the world of Faerie and the English world colliding in a nasty cat fight over, guess what, which of the ladies, fairy or human, gets to marry this man. It works because of its utter un-originality. 

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse - This delightful little tale is set in the world of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Specifically, in the Victorian-English village of Wall - where a wall divides two worlds that are better off separate. I loved the crossing over of worlds, and Clarke certainly seemed to have had fun writing it. The Duke of Wellington is quite a character and the story is very amusing. For all the men in this book, who historically correctly find the women basically pointless, this book does have a lot of instances of girl (lady) power.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower - This is a creatively written story of a man who discovers he's not quite as human as he'd grown up convinced. There is some wonderfully vivid imagery in this story.

At the end she was like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged about inside her head. She appeared to believe that she had been taken by force to a place where she was watched night and day by a hideous jailoress.

Tom Brightwind or How The Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby - Tom Brightwind is a handsome, arrogant fairy who reminded me a lot of someone - I racked my brains trying to remember whom and finally realized it was Howl Pendragon. A centuries older and even less morally inclined Wizard Howl. Tom is friends with a human. One day, the two friends happen to travel to a small village called Thoresby, which lies across a river and can only be accessed by ferry. Though they're initially off to another place, they end up staying in Thoresby to build a bridge. How Tom Brightwind builds the fairy bridge and what the bridge does is for you to read!

Antickes and Frets - This is the story of how the conceited and sly Queen of Scots plots revenge on the Queen of England using evil magic and a bit of cunning embroidery.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner - This, of course, was the highlight of the bunch, if only because it starred the Raven King himself. Both while I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and now, this book, I seemed even to myself like a puppy begging for scraps - for stories of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Clarke gives us a little snippet in the first story in the collection and never once mentions him till this last story. And the little bits I did get were delicious but not enough.

Each of these stories is totally different from the rest, and the only thing keeping them strung together is the probably-never-done-before way Susanna Clarke makes magic real. You'd have to read the book to know just what I mean, but I'll give you this:

It occurs to me that just as Reason is seated in the brain of Man, so we Fairies may contain within ourselves some organ of Magic.

What about you, do you like fairy tales? Old or new? And have you read Susanna Clarke?

8 comments:

harish p i said...

Never read her. I just read retelling of Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. Don't know if the absurd humor comes from Calvino or the source. I will try this book. Seems good.

jenclair said...

I put this on my list some time ago (probably during the last Once Upon a Time challenge) and then forgot about it. Thanks for refreshing my memory.

Lynn said...

This is definitely going on the list. I loved Strange and Norrell and had no idea that this one had been written (I live under a rock!).
Thanks
Lynn :D

Priya said...

Harish - That book sounds interesting! I have no idea about Italian folktales, but would like to read. I read Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, and I think the humour could be Calvino-related, too. :)

jenclair - It's worth a read, certainly. My TBR lists grow much longer with each of these events!

Lynn - Oh, there was supposed to be a sequel (I'd read in an interview) but this is all there is, yet. You should read the book! :)

Delia D said...

Lovely review! I've read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and liked it (not loved it but liked it, which is still great) and was curious about this book. It sounds wonderful and I hope to read it one day.

Priya said...

Delia - Thanks! Well, this is less than half its size, so you should give it a shot, anyway. It is wonderful. :)

pat said...

I loved this book also! She's perfect at catching the strangeness of the fairy land, and its lack of rules. In a lot of ways her work reminds me of the 'Sandman'.

Priya said...

pat - I know, she reminded me of Gaiman too, even back when I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That being said, I haven't actually read Sandman, but one more reason to do it now. Thanks for stopping by!

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