The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, for the Short Story Quest. The Once Upon a Time Challenge is a reading and viewing event for the four broad genres of fairy tale, fantasy, folklore and mythology. I plan to participate with Quest the First (reading at least five books fitting in any of these genres) and might join in for the June readalong of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I was literally in love with the book. I wrote three posts about reading the mountain of a book, one for each part, and by the end I was convinced “fantasy couldn’t get any better than this, magic couldn’t get more original.” And I stand by my opinion after this little short story collection as well. Susanna Clarke is a fantastic writer and both the books are definitely worth your time.
The word fantasy brings to mind Tolkien and the whole range of epic fantasy, along with the insanely widespread young adult paranormal genre. What Clarke gives us in her books is something unique in today’s world, basically because it is so old-fashioned. She’s Neil Gaiman meeting Jane Austen, which is kind of cool.
The stories are not what you’d expect from modern fairy tales at all, but rather, they’re written quite archaic and very folksy. The setting for these stories makes them special, because it isn’t enchanted toadstools and pretty winged fairies that she talks about, but the eerie unknown magical world full of wicked creatures who excel in trickery and deceit. Faerie, in Clarke’s world, is fairyland as it was probably first intended to be – full of the mysterious, inexplicable things that people were afraid of and avoided. While I’m not a big expert on English fairy tales, these did sound like the original, darker and more absurd Grimm’s tales – the ones meant for adults, not children.
I don’t suppose you need to have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to enjoy this book. If you have read the novel, and if you loved it like I did, you must read this book! If you haven’t and are too intimidated by the nine-hundred-something pages, give this a try, to get a glimpse of what she has to offer. The stories:
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – This is the expansion of a footnote from the novel. When Jonathan Strange pays his brother-in-law a visit, he encounters three lady magicians, who chide him for his (Norrell’s) skepticism towards the Raven King and his pure old practical magic. It’s a good story about the consequences of magic and the place of female magicians in Clarke’s alternate London. Also part of the story is a charming short tale of the Raven King from when he was just a Raven Child, setting the scene for the final story.
“Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make
you drunk. A successful spell is as potent a loosener of tongues as a bottle of
good claret and you will find the morning after that you have said things you
now regret.” 
On Lickerish Hill – This seemed to me a retelling Rumpelstiltskin, which is easily my favourite Grimm’s fairy tale. Realizing these were going to be typical English fairy tales, I decided to read the book English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, which I found on Project Gutenberg. And the very first tale was Tom Tit Tot, an English version of Rumpelstiltskin. So, I should say, On Lickerish Hill is actually a retelling of Tom Tit Tot, involving Faerie and more explicit magic. It’s also a first person narration, unlike your usual fairy tale, and the heroine who would have otherwise sounded like a helpless naive thing actually moves the story forward and ends up appearing pretty clever.
Mrs. Mabb – This is a darkly fantastical story about the world of Faerie and the English world colliding in a nasty cat fight over, guess what, which of the ladies, fairy or human, gets to marry this man. It works because of its utter un-originality. 
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse – This delightful little tale is set in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Specifically, in the Victorian-English village of Wall – where a wall divides two worlds that are better off separate. I loved the crossing over of worlds, and Clarke certainly seemed to have had fun writing it. The Duke of Wellington is quite a character and the story is very amusing. For all the men in this book, who historically correctly find the women basically pointless, this book does have a lot of instances of girl (lady) power.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower – This is a creatively written story of a man who discovers he’s not quite as human as he’d grown up convinced. There is some wonderfully vivid imagery in this story.
At the end she was
like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at
their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged
about inside her head. She appeared to believe that she had been taken by force
to a place where she was watched night and day by a hideous jailoress.

Tom Brightwind or How The Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby – Tom Brightwind is a handsome, arrogant fairy who reminded me a lot of someone – I racked my brains trying to remember whom and finally realized it was Howl Pendragon. A centuries older and even less morally inclined Wizard Howl. Tom is friends with a human. One day, the two friends happen to travel to a small village called Thoresby, which lies across a river and can only be accessed by ferry. Though they’re initially off to another place, they end up staying in Thoresby to build a bridge. How Tom Brightwind builds the fairy bridge and what the bridge does is for you to read!

Antickes and Frets – This is the story of how the conceited and sly Queen of Scots plots revenge on the Queen of England using evil magic and a bit of cunning embroidery.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner – This, of course, was the highlight of the bunch, if only because it starred the Raven King himself. Both while I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and now, this book, I seemed even to myself like a puppy begging for scraps – for stories of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Clarke gives us a little snippet in the first story in the collection and never once mentions him till this last story. And the little bits I did get were delicious but not enough.

Each of these stories is totally different from the rest, and the only thing keeping them strung together is the probably-never-done-before way Susanna Clarke makes magic real. You’d have to read the book to know just what I mean, but I’ll give you this:

It occurs to me that
just as Reason is seated in the brain of Man, so we Fairies may contain within
ourselves some organ of Magic.

What about you, do you like fairy tales? Old or new? And have you read Susanna Clarke?

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I wrote a Volume-by-Volume review of this book, with the first two reviews here and here. This would have been a review of Volume 3, had I not realized something.

Picture me sitting at the window, with rain pouring outside, a cup of hot coffee in my hand and my nose buried in the pages of this fabulous book. I read more than a couple of hundred pages in less than an hour and I wished there were a couple of hundred more pages, when I finally finished the book. I know this goes against the whole point of being a book reviewer, but I really have NO words to describe, how amazing I found the book. Clarke has managed to create in one book, what others would need seven books for. My library copy is due tomorrow, but I’m sure I’m not going to be able to resist just buying the book and reading it all over again. Fantasy couldn’t get any better than this, magic couldn’t get any more original.

Coming back to what I realized… I am not going to write a review for this book, because nothing I say will do justice to it. And, I’m definitely not going to recommend it to anyone I know; because I do not want to go through the whole “I tried it because you told me to, but I gave up after Page 4.” or “It’s not as great as you thought it was.” experience again. Not with this book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke Volume II

A few days ago, I wrote about Volume I of this book.

This book just becomes more and more amazing with every single turn of the page. There were times when I realized I almost wasn’t breathing and had to force myself to relax.

What I like about this book, is that the magic isn’t very organized; which is different from the Harry Potter-like magic, which I am more used to. The magician casts spells and creates illusions and visions and even roads to who-knows-where, for that matter. We know how he does it, but there is still an air of mystery to it. It is still astonishing, and magical. It isn’t broken down to pieces and studied and turned into a sort of science. And I like that.

I remember mentioning my frequent realization, that something BIG was coming. Well: It has arrived, and with a deafening bang. Clarke has masterfully crafted the novel. In the first volume, we get a vague idea about the book. We learn about English magic and the two English magicians; we learn that there is a kingdom of Fairy just like the human kingdom, and that there was once a magician called the Raven King, who ruled these kingdoms, along with Heaven and Hell. In Volume I, the author leisurely builds her setting, introduces us to the main characters and their potentially opposing viewpoints.

We spend the major part of Volume II getting to know Jonathan Strange and what an exciting person he is, entirely at his ease, with his mocking half-smile and his eyes full of smiles and secrets and
 – just as
magicians‘ eyes should be.” 

Clarke takes us on an entirely different journey, with Strange’s antics in the Army and the way he wins wars for the English; by attacking the French with illusions and moving around cities and rivers to his convenience. We get to see a different side of English magic, which is not related at all to the main plot, which is staged in London. But it certainly gives us great insight into Strange’s character and his curious nature. 

The story doesn’t move fast in this Volume, unlike the previous one. Instead the author slips a few bits and pieces of information, that might reduce the suspense, if only we knew exactly what they were; details, that seem important, but we don’t know why. And at the end, when we least expect it, the author hits us with a lightning bolt-shaped chunk of story. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book; you have no idea how hard it was to put it down for the fifteen minutes, that it took me to write this review!
Happy Reading!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke Volume I

So. I’ve been buried in this book, ever since I got it from the library. And, what an experience that was! I was attending the fiction writing workshop at a library, and after nibbling on a few sandwiches, I spent the rest of the lunch break looking at the books. How can you sit and eat when you’re surrounded my countless magical shelves of old, rich smelling books?
I noticed this huge book and read the title: Jonathan Strange and…. I literally squealed. I wanted this book for ages. A man sitting next to me reading started, and looked up, wide-eyed, as if he thought I was a freak. I plastered a very awkward smile on my face, snatched the book, and sort of ran away. I was carrying a very tiny bag with me, so for the rest of the workshop, I had to keep the book on the table, for everyone to see, smile and question about.

Getting back to the book; it is, as you can see, enormous. I couldn’t write an entire review with all the elements I want to talk about, even if I wanted to. So, I’ve decided to write about each Volume separately and I finished reading Volume I, yesterday. Let me start with appearance. I love the simple black-and-white cover, that lets on so little about the book. My copy looks sort of old (even though the book was released in 2004) and worn and very beautiful; it’s a paperback and I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to read such a huge hardback. The illustrations (by Portia Rosenberg) look like pictures right out of a book of magic.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a book about two English magicians, set in the 19th Century England (with an alternative history; one where magic existed) around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The writing has a very formal Victorian-ish air to it, but the language is never too heavy to get through. The archaic spellings and that touch of deadpan humour adds a sort of style to the book. Not to mention, the often foot-long footnotes make the world Clarke has created even more real and quite enchanting.

Volume I introduces us to Mr. Norrell, who is seemingly the only practical magician left today (practical magic died out centuries ago.) Mr. Norrell is quite unlike the image, that gets conjured up in your mind when you think of a magician. He is a tiny man, who easily goes unnoticed. He doesn’t like big crowds and lives at the outskirts of a city of York, alone in a big house with an enormous library. When asked to perform magic by all the theoretical magicians of York, to prove that he can, he does it; but on one condition. Once he proves that he can perform practical magic, every theoretical magician must give up his profession. That says a lot about Mr. Norrell. He is proud, wants to keep all the glory to himself and wants to bask in the limelight; but is too anti-social to know how to make people respect him. Our story really begins, when Mr. Norrell, on having made every magician in his town quit magic, leaves to London, intending to revive practical magic in England.

Right from the very start, Clarke builds up the story beautifully; while on the one hand we read about Mr. Norrell’s antics in the city of York and later in London; on the other, we are slowly introduced to the legendary Raven King, a powerful magician who ruled the human and Faerie kingdoms; without whom, arguably, there would be no magic at all. We are also briefly introduced to the other key character of the novel, Mr. Strange. We know that he goes on to become Mr. Norrell’s pupil, but how he gets there and why is quite a mystery; considering how possessive Mr. Norrell is about magic! The book is very Harry Potter-esque, in a way, because I feel the same kind of awe, when reading it, that I felt all those years ago. The descriptions of the magic performed in the book made me almost shiver with excitement. Not to mention, the frequent realization that something BIG is about to happen.

Neil Gaiman calls it the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years, and I think I already know why. I can’t seem to be able to put it down…

P.S. – For those of you, who want to get a taste of Clarke’s writing, before taking on a 1000 page book – here‘s a beautiful little short story by her, that you ought to try! Just follow the link.