Saturday, December 17, 2011

Adieu, Adieu

I just realized that, what with 100% of my leisure attention being directed towards EU3, I completely neglected to mention my recent return to Susanna Clarke. Her book "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" is one of my favorite books of the past decade, and I've found that my appreciation of it has continued to grow since I finished it. Clarke has such an amazing voice within that book, at once innovative (it sounds unlike any other book published recently), and traditional (it sounds like a book you might have been assigned in an English Literature class). It's wonderfully highly elevated fantasy, and is one of the only books to combine my love of wholly constructed, self-realized worlds with my love of clever, elevated writing.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell stands alone, and I doubt that we'll see another book quite like it. However, Clarke has published another book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, that should appeal to anyone who enjoyed that first one. It isn't a sequel, and isn't even really a novel; instead, it's a collection of short stories, all set in the same alternate world that she created for Strange & Norrell. Each individual story works quite well on its own, with well-drawn characters (I'm particularly fond of the newly appointed rector who must contend with a faerie relative and a bevy of eligible young ladies) and good plots (some meander, but do so entertainingly). However, I think the collection is absolutely brilliant when seen as a comment on English literature itself. I was originally going to write "satire", but that isn't quite right... Clarke has too much love for the subject matter to mock it. Each story, though, manages to perfectly capture the tone of a particular strain of English writing. One of the later stories is a kind of reinterpretation of Rumpelstiltskin, and is told in the first person in language that perfectly echoes that seen in The Canterbury Tales, down to the use of archaic terms. The aforementioned story about a young minister just perfectly nails Jane Austen, down to the dialog from each of the young ladies and the obsession with incomes and standing. Other stories read like traditional folktales; another is a morality tale; others are histories.

There is a limited bit of overlap with some of the characters from Strange & Norrell in at least one of the stories; what's even cooler, though, is getting to learn more about the incredibly rich backstory that Clarke created for that book. The most dramatic example of this is probably getting a first-hand glimpse at legendary characters like John Uskglass the Raven King, who looms large over the bigger novel; here, we just see a slice, and probably not a very representative one, but it's still thrilling to read. The book is a great treat, reminding me of what I loved about Strange & Norrell while making its world even larger, deeper, and more believable.

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