I read two fantasy short-story collections recently - Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke - and it turned out they both had a lot in common, so I thought I’d tell you about them together. Both are by highly-regarded fantasy authors (although Gaiman is very well-established in all kinds of media, and Clarke just blazed onto the scene a couple of years ago with her brilliant, amazing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell), both collections have stories that tie in to previous novels, both were very high on my to-read list for Fall 2006, and both were satisfying in their individual ways.
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman. This collection of short stories, poems, and odds-and-ends is a must-read for any Gaiman fan. Most of the pieces have appeared before in various anthologies, websites and Tori Amos tour booklets, but he’s included a fabulous Introduction that describes the where/when/why/how of each piece’s origin that gives an interesting glimpse into the workaday world of a writer, plus gives a new context to pieces you might have seen before. I was lucky enough to see Gaiman at the Children’s Literature New England conference in 2005, and I was happy to find a couple of the pieces he read collected here: “Locks,” a poem about a father telling his daughter (and the other way around) the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; and “Instructions,” a poem that acts as a guidebook to anyone who wanders into a fairy tale - here’s an excerpt:
If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
Do not be jealous of your sister:
know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble
from one’s lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.
Good stuff. I was a little less pleased with the novella “The Monarch of the Glen,” which finds the beloved character Shadow wandering around Scotland two years after the events of American Gods. See, I really, really liked American Gods so maybe no tie-in story would be able to live up to my expectations. No, wait, that isn’t it, because I liked Anansi Boys, and that had a bit of a tie-in too. In the story, Shadow thinks he’s being hired as a bodyguard for a party and gets caught up in a ritualistic battle between god and man. I know, it sounds like a mini-version of American Gods. It just feels ill-conceived and underdeveloped - I had a hard time understanding or caring about exactly what was at stake in the battle.
Most of the stories are much more successful. They’ve got all the imagination, creepiness and dark humor that make Gaiman so great at what he does, but streamlined so you don’t have as much of the occasional joke-carried-on-too-long or gratuitous ickiness or unnecessary exposition that occasionally trip him (well, most fantasy/horror novelists, really) up in his full-length fiction. I especially enjoyed “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire,” a clever and hilarious parody of the act of writing fantasy and horror and the eternal complaint that genre fiction isn’t “serious literature.”
The Ladies of Grace Adieu: and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke, illustrated by Charles Vess. Okay, Julie and I didn’t start this blog until this past summer, so most of you were not around to hear it when I was TOTALLY FREAKING OUT about how TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was. So, let me catch you up: This. Was. The. Best. Book. Of. 2004. I am not even kidding. And this is a big deal for me to say for a year that saw that most blessed of events, a new Haven Kimmel novel, too. So, you can imagine, this collection of short stories had a pretty high standard to live up to as far as I was concerned. I admit - the first couple of stories disappointed me. But don’t worry, it gets better.
All of these stories (most of which have been previously published in anthologies) take place in the same alternative-reality England that Clarke depictied in Jonathan Strange, in which Regency-era gentlemen scholars resurrect the lapsed study of magic and reconnect with the world of Faerie. Interestingly, most were written and published before 2004, so Ms. Clarke has evidently been crafting this world for some time. Strange himself even appears in one of the stories, as do the Duke of Wellington and the Raven King, John Uskglass. It was enjoyable to return to these characters, and this world - Clarke has created an incredibly rich landscape with her distinctive literary style and vividly-imagined mythology.
The problem I initially had with the first few stories was purely based on comparison to Jonathan Strange, and the quirks of my own personal taste: the main characters were female. Which in itself isn’t a bad thing, of course. It’s just that one of the things I enjoyed so much about JS&MN was the contrast between the formal Regency-era language and manners, and the sometimes gruesome and visceral scenes that Clarke depicted. The first three stories of Ladies focus much more heavily on, well, ladies than on gentlemen and soldiers, and since Clarke’s early-19th c. England is just as sexist as the real thing, the action is much more limited to parlours and bedrooms, and concerned with marriage and scandal rather than scholarship and war. It changes the tone, too - the title story, in particular, feels more like Austen-plus-magic than Dickens-plus-magic. Again, I have to say, I have nothing against Austen and I do like these stories on their own merits. But, to further illuminate how my personal taste is playing in to this, I liked both Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy and the Patricia Wrede/Caroline Stevermer Sorcery and Cecelia books, but I like Stroud better. I guess I’m just a literary tomboy.
Once I let go of expecting the stories to be on the same level as JS&MN I enjoyed them quite a bit. All of the stories display her wry wit and gifted use of language, and “Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower” actually does have a lot of the same sort of genteel/gritty contrast as JS&MN. There are some interesting surprises to be found here, as well. “Antickes and Frets” reimagines the exile of Mary Queen of Scots. “On Lickerish Hill” is a cleverly inspired version of Rumpelstiltskin/Tom Tit Tot. And “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” actually takes place in the village of Wall, the setting of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Charles Vess provides one or two lovely line drawings for each story (the expression on Queen Mary’s face in his portrait is downright evil - amazing how he got so much expression in a black-and-white outline). All in all, this is a fun collection for fantasy fans, and a decent way to bide the time until Susanna Clarke comes out with another full-length novel.