by Susanna Clarke
“I have it!” He was suddenly struck with a most original idea. “I will not quarrel with him! Then he will not kill me!” He looked down at the embroidery. “Oh, but he has such a conceited expression! Who could help but quarrel with such a ninny!”
Written by Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, this is a collection of fairytales, with some being set in the alternative world created by Clarke for JS&MN.
I must admit, when I first picked up the book (I got it for £1 from a book sale), I was hesitant. Whilst I enjoyed the inventiveness of JS&MN I found the story somewhat lacking and standard. The lack of a good plot contrasted with the creative language style.
My reservations were confirmed in the first story. It took me days to read it, simply because I could just not get involved. However, after leaving the world of JS&MN… well, I became absorbed. The storytelling was fabulous, the writing inventive, the characters believable (especially for the era they’re written in, you know, the one where people fall in love within a few days and women frequently marry men far older than themselves).
I think my favourite tale would have to be ‘The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse’, in which The Duke of Wellington becomes lost in Faerie and attempts to plot the course of his future through a tapestry. It is deliciously funny, and perhaps my favourite line has to be the quotation at the beginning of this review. Clarke’s voice for the Duke is wonderful, and the ending has some wonderful political snark.
Another entertaining tale is the last: ‘John Uskglass and the Charcoal Burner’, which is rather surprising for me, as it was set in the JS&MN world. But it was a thoroughly entrancing tale of John Uskglass, the Raven King, meeting his match in a Charcoal Burner who would pray to saints and demand punishment to befall the Raven King. Again, Clarke’s wit is highlighted in this story, most notably in the saints’ reactions to the Charcoal Burner’s demands, especially for the last saint who has the barest of connections to Uskglass’ crime. The dialogue is practically swimming in sarcasm.
I think the best praise I can give this book is that it felt like a book of fairytales. For contrast, JK Rowling’s recent The Tales of Beedle the Bard were clumsy and unremarkable, her messages were clear and without subtlety. Fairytales are strange creations; their morals are obscure and debated.
This book had a distinctive fairytale feel to it; immersive and of a good length. Not too short, but not so long that you craved for a new chapter to take a breather. If you were a fan of JS&MN then this book is an obvious read, but, if you weren’t, I’d recommend reading it anyway. It is a lovely book full of mystery, suspense and morally dubious acts, and certainly not one I was expecting to enjoy so much.
Rating: four out of five books
PS: Yes, ok, technically it’s not 24th for me anymore, but I’m sure it’s 24th somewhere in the world. We can keep a secret, right? Right?
Next week: Tamar by Mal Peet.