The Ladies of Grace Adieu [2006]

This book of short stories is largely set in the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, her début brick. The edition I have is a handsome hard-back with a nice readable font and illustrations, creating a favourable impression when picking it up.

If this were an album, I’d describe it as a “concept album”, like Ok Computer or Diamond Dogs. However, I suppose that’s not a sensible term inasmuch as most single-author short story collections seem to be in that mode. It just strikes me that the only other similarly unified collection that I own is What we talk about when we talk about love by Raymond Carver. While all the stories are completely disconnected from each other, the stylistic and thematic links are so strong that it is obvious they are part of one larger conception.

And that conception is an extremely imaginative look at the intersections of mortals with Fae of various sorts. The stories at once manage to feel fresh and imaginative, and also familiar: they have the authentic feel of fairy stories from your dimly remembered childhood. Most importantly however, is that the Fae depicted have recognisable human traits, and yet are deeply alien – far more alien than most bumpy-headed critters in SF, or “meta-humans” in fantasy.

Taken individually, most of the stories are themselves interesting. The two stories based on commonplace myths feel slightly flat, but the rest are intriguing and compelling reading. Once a story was begun, I found it impossible to put down. While each story is an intelligible and complete tale, Clarke is careful to show, rather than tell – there is very little help from the narrator, but the action is clear enough that you don’t need it. This contributes to a sense that the tale you are reading is part of a wider system of the world, and while being nominally complete, it preserves an air of mystery that I believe is crucial to the successful Fae story.

After reading this book, I felt a wave of inspiration for trying out Changeling, but at the same time, this heightened my nervousness because the creative bar is so high. Reading this tome also completely destroyed any remaining love I might have had for the likes of Tad Williams’ dire War of the Flowers. Totally worth it.

All in all, this is the best short story collection I’ve read since What we talk about when we talk about love. A truly excellent tome.

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