Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (Bloomsbury,2006)

A governess uncovers a plot to murder the children in her care, but she and her two friends have ways of dealing with people they don't like. A maid enlists a fairy's help to spin flax and protect herself from her husband's wrath. A young woman tries to free her love from a strange lady that nobody can describe the same way as anybody else. The famous Duke of Wellington runs afoul of the townspeople of Wall, and is forced to enter a very peculiar place in order to retrieve his steed. A poor clergyman must find a way to rescue one of the women in his parish from nursing a half-human child. A unique friendship between a human and a fairy leads to a bridge being built overnight -- with a few other ramifications. Mary Queen of Scots, frustrated by all her attempts to get back at a certain cousin of hers by natural means, decides to try something different. John Uskglass, the legendary Raven King of the north of England, keeps finding himself outmaneuvered by a country bumpkin whose pig had been turned into a fish.

These are the premises behind the eight short stories that make up The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, the second book from the British author Susanna Clarke. Her first book, the massive novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, became an instant classic in the fantasy genre when it came out in 2004, and shot Clarke straight to the top of my list of favorite living authors. These stories come from the same world that Strange and Norrell inhabit, where "practical magic" and fairy realms are within the reach of everyday English people. Much like her novel, Clarke's stories combine J. K. Rowling's sense of the fantastic with Edgar Allan Poe's sense of the macabre, along with a generous helping of surrealism and a warped, but inescapably English, sense of humor.

The sheer size of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, combined with Clarke's unique but arcane writing style, made her novel a difficult read for many. The stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories are by contrast more easily digestible and accessible, and actually serve as a better introduction to Clarke's wonderfully whacky world. Of the eight, the only one that I would consider merely adequate is the second one, "On Lickerish Hill"; it essentially pulls Rumpelstiltskin out of German fairy tales into Clarke's mythical England, without really adding anything to the story. Otherwise, the remaining stories make for reading that's engrossing, funny, and fantastic in both senses of the word. "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" are particularly brilliant.

Anybody who likes fantasy with a bit of a demented streak should find something to their liking in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. I do have to acknowledge that Susanna Clarke's writing style doesn't work for everybody, but I absolutely love it.

Overall grade: A

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