Ursula Pflug's Reviews > The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke
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Sep 03, 09

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This review appeared the New York Review of Science Fiction in April, 2007. It was a reprint from The Peterborough Examiner.

The success of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was phenomenal. This debut novel by a newcomer, already hailed as the new Tolkien, describes the Napoleonic Wars as seen by a young magician, Jonathan Strange, and was called, by Neil Gaiman, no less, the best English fantasy novel to appear in seventy years. It also set Clarke firmly in the top ranks at first go, winning her both the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo for 2005. Time Magazine named it best novel of the year.

Clarke’s second book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is not a sequel, but a collection of short stories taking place in the same alternate nineteenth century of Norrel and Strange, in which practical magic is real, fairies exist, and magicians are able to influence both weather and world events. In these stories, Clarke returns to her Austenesque style, describing relationships with a dry elliptical wit. She continues to employ unusual spelling, such as chuse for choose, scissars for scissors, headach for a bad time the day after, and so forth. The eight stories and wonderfully inventive introduction by a fictional academic describe smaller worlds, often seen through the eyes of women, who were, it must be said, largely missing from Strange and Norrell except as secondary players..

The titular story describes the adventures of three young ladies, practising magicians. They have a great deal of slightly improper fun, and manage to do some good, unmasking the unscrupulous officer cousin of one, and even managing to surprise and frighten Jonathan Strange. They are students of the works of Lady Catherine of Winchester, who, while a mere female, still managed to exert summary influence on the greatest magicians of her time, as well as those of the following centuries.

In Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was built at Thoresby, a Jewish doctor, David Montefiore, convinces a fairy to build a bridge for a depressed little town, and to forgive his many fairy daughters their impetuous behaviour, releasing them from various sorts of magical captivity.

In John Uskglass and The Cumbrian Charcoal Burner we meet the legendary half fairy king
of northern England, which is a benison, as we don’t see much of him in the novel, even though he’s constantly being referenced. The Raven King we meet here is a little arrogant, and pays for his arrogance at the hands of a humble charcoal burner, with a little help from various saints.

There are not one but two stories about magical embroidery. In The Duke of Wellington Mispalces His Horse, that is exactly what happens, while Antickes and Frets concerns another historical personage, namely Mary, Queen of Scots. Much magical employment of scissars in both.

The embossed cover is evocative of English fairy books by authors such as Andrew Lang, that some of us were lucky enough to read as children. The illustrations by Charles Vess are dreamy. This slim hardcover is pricey, but a sumptuous object to be treasured or gifted.

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