Review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

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The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is a collection of short stories, most of which are set in the same world as Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you’re not familiar with the novel (or the BBC TV adaptation), it takes place in late 18th-, early 19th-century England and features a mix of magic, faeries and historical figures, including the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon.

This collection of stories is, in short, frustrating. Clarke’s wit, humour and imagination are evident throughout the book. Despite this, most of the stories fail to deliver on their promise. This is due, in part, to Clarke’s decision to write a couple of stories in the style of fairy tales, i.e. with simple, straightforward characterizations that lack much depth. I’m sympathetic to what she tried to do but the results are inconsistent. “Mrs. Mabb” and “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse” both fell flat for me. “On Lickerish Hill” suffered likewise, with the added problem that it is an almost exact retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin”. To be honest, that annoyed me so much, I almost stopped reading then and there.

There are, however, a couple of gems towards the end of the book. “Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” and “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” are both fun little stories that play on fairy tale tropes without falling into clichés. “Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower” also works well, though I found the ending a bit muddled.

Beyond that, the book is in sore need of an edit. I read the Kindle version, which had numerous errors throughout. This was compounded by Clarke’s inconsistent use of 18th- and 19th-century English spellings. Most of the book is written with modern spellings but, in some stories, Clarke uses older spellings maybe once or twice on a page. The result is that they look like errors, which jarred whenever I came across them. As I said at the start, frustrating.

Overall, I have a hard time recommending this to anyone. Unfortunately, the errors and problems outweigh the imagination and wit. If you’re not familiar with Clarke’s work, try Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you’re already a fan, I reluctantly advise avoiding The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.

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