While Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not required reading for this short story collection, it provides a fuller and more complete background to the stories you are reading, nevertheless, one can certainly enjoy them and understand what’s going on without having read the aforementioned 600+ page book.
Clarke spent a decade writing Jonathan Strange, so it is not surprising that in her spare time she wrote some stories set in this magnificent world, which while not directly involved in the actions and events of her opus, do play by its rules and restrictions. Some of the stories may even have been cut from the massive manuscript that was Jonathan Strange and now find themselves in this collection, finally in print.
These eight stories run the gamut of what Clarke might want to tell about her world, from what a couple of ladies with magical abilities must do (from the title story); to a tale of Mary, Queen of Scots; to a story involving the same Jonathan Strange of her book. What links all these stories together is the reality of magic, whether the characters in the stories choose to accept its existence or not. The result is a delightful, seemingly romantic, and entertaining change to the glut of fantasy filling the book world these days. Magic in Clarke’s world cannot be done by everyone; it is subtle, exhausting, and hard to do. Like the Bartimaeus Trilogy, Clarke’s magical world presents something new and therefore captivating in its own way.
While my complaint of Clarke is that she can often be long winded and due for some heavy editing – both in this collection and in her weighty novel – in the end one is left with the wonderful feeling that one has just read something special and will delight in reading it again some day. Not to mention Ladies of Grace Adieu also features mesmerizing black and white illustrations by Charles Vess (who illustrated Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), the book is a worthy addition to anyone’s library. The question remains now: how long will it be before Clarke publishes another collection or novel? Does she have a box full of cut stories and material from Jonathan Strange waiting to be viewed by a reader’s eyes? Only time will reveal this truth.
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Originally written on October 12th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.