Sussana Clarke developed a unique alternative version of 19th century England with a touch of faerie and magic in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and continues that setting with a collection of charming short stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu. The sheer length of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and the Dickensian style in which it is written makes it quite an intimidating read. It’s worth the effort, but it’s a major undertaking. Ladies of Grace Adieu is a much better introduction to that world, because the short stories are more approachable than the mammoth novel.
Each story is a little gem of classic folktale storytelling. Some are adaptations of traditional fairy stories with touches of the mythology unique to Clarke’s world. Others are entirely original, but cleverly written to fit with the style of the rest, reminiscent of the work of classic Victorian mythologers like Joseph Jacobs or Andrew Lang.
Just as their books were improved by the work of illustrators like H. J. Ford and J. D. Batten, Clarke’s book is enhanced by the addition of decorative frontispieces for each story by classic contemporary fantasy artist Charles Vess, whose pen and ink drawings and lettering capture the feel of those great 19th century fairy books. The title story is particularly good, but all of the stories stand up well on their own merits. Each one is a little different, but partaking of a common background they fit together well. If you like the work of writers like Neil Gaiman or Charles de Lint (both of whom have also worked with Charles Vess), you’re going to like Susanna Clarke, and this book is a great introduction to her work.