The OF Blog: WFA Best Collection Finalist: Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Sunday, October 28, 2007

WFA Best Collection Finalist: Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

When Susanna Clarke released her charming first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in September 2004, it quickly was lauded as being one of the wittier and more genteel of fantasy novels to have been published in recent years. Many readers noted the stylistic similarities to Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, and Anthony Trollope among others, and it is this Regency/Early Victorian style of writing, with sentences and phrases that appear to be as well-mannered as the characters that people her stories, that perhaps was one reason why Clarke very quickly became a crossover success, becoming a bestseller and winner of the 2005 Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

However, there have been many fans who have been clamoring for more stories set in that Regency period world of magic's "reawakening" and the mysterious figure of the Raven King. Although most of the eight stories contained within were first published before Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the recent release of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories ought to serve as a good appetizer while we await further news of more Strange and Norrell (mis)adventures.

The stories themselves are structured in much the same way as events in the novel. There are many sly turns of phrases, the satire is subtle and yet usually spot-on, and the stories feel as though they are extensions of the copious footnotes found in the novel (in fact, the title story explains in full a certain footnote found in Ch. 43 of the novel). While only the first story explicitly refers to Strange and Norrell, most of the others in this collection hark back to events that were mentioned in passing in the novel, especially those related to the Raven King. Related in tone but not in events to the others, there is a story about the Duke of Wellington that originally was included in an extension of sorts of Neil Gaiman's Stardust.
I am of two minds when trying to evaluate this story as an award finalist. While I do believe the stories are uniformly well-written and well-told, there just was not that "spark" in them that I got out of a couple of the other finalists. This is not a criticism of Clarke, who fairly much accomplished her story goals, but rather a statement of personal taste. Those who were enamored with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will very much like these tales, but others might find them to be a bit too well-mannered and dressed-up for the rough-and-tumble sort of fantasy short that many laud as being the best in the genre. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories certainly has to be one of the favorites for the WFA Best Collection Award, but I hold it as being slightly lower in my personal appraisal of the finalists.

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