Many years ago—based upon a radio interview, I think—I read Susanna Clark’s massive debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. As I recall, the book combines historical fiction and fantasy to tell the tale of two somewhat friendly, rival magicians rediscovering actual, practical magic in 19th-century England. The book calls to mind the Harry Potter series in the sense that this is our world as we know it, but with wizarding world just beneath the surface that breaks through into the open. It recalls Tolkien in the depth and detail of its footnoted backstories.
More than a decade later, I see I did not blog about it, and today I remember little about the plot, other than it involved a young woman tormented by a fairy who drew her, night after night, into his realm to do his bidding. What I recall most was the atmosphere of the book: Clarke’s descriptions of “the man with the thistledown hair” and the world of Faery are terrible and otherworldly—you feel every bit as transported and disoriented as the characters; their thoughts and fears become your own.
I remember thinking highly enough of the book that when I ran across Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, I snapped it up despite the pink flowers on the front. And now, a decade later, I’ve finally read them.
They did not disappoint. Combining the flavors of history, folk tales, fantasy and romance, with hints of horror even, these peculiar little stories filled me with the same dread fascination, the same dark humor, as Clarke’s initial novel.
It should be noted that the fairies in these stories are no Tinkerbells. Some are tall as men, beautiful and haughty and temperamental; some are misshapen and monstrous, more like goblins than fairies in the modern sense. The named fairies are intelligent, fiercely cunning, self-centered and covetous. Their interactions with humans are less guardian-angel and more Rumpelstiltskin.
Magic is treated similarly. Unlike the Harry Potter series, which (especially early on) revels in the wonder and joy of spells and the supernatural in merry old England, magic in this world is, more often than not, shrouded in mist and mystery, dark-tinged and frightening.
And yet, hope prevails. The final tale in the book involves a poor fool, a powerful fairy king, and a variety of saints long dead but still active in the world, to show that even fairy magic has its limits.
One last note of caution: Some of these stories maintain a sense of mystery and uncertainty even to the end. If you are the sort who prefers everything tight and tidy when you finish a tale, these may not be entirely for you. But if you are into this sort of thing, I recommend Clarke’s collection highly.