three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Ladies of Grace AdieuIn Susanna Clarke’s best-selling novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004), two magicians practiced their craft during the Napoleonic Wars. In the title story in this collection, Mr. Strange returns to become entangled with three witches. In "Mrs. Mabb," a village girl and a fairy duke it out over a soldier; "Antickes and Frets" features Mary, Queen of Scots, with a strange murder weapon. Other stories, most of which take place in early 19th-century England, concern fairies who kidnap young women, a monumental bridge to the outside world, and the formidable Raven King. Mr. Strange sums up these tales: "Magic, madam, is like fine wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make you drunk."
Bloomsbury. 235 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1596912510

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"In each [story], humankind and the denizens of Faerie bump up against each other with either dire or amusing results. … They are uniformly clever and meticulously composed, knowledgeable of folk traditions while giving them a modern spin." Michael Berry

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Ladies can’t match the physical size of Jonathan Strange but it certainly matches, pound for pound, its literary tone and spirit. … One of the most charming facets of Clarke’s stories is her mingling of historical characters with ones of her own creation."

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Readers will notice plenty of echoes of 19th-century authors, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, as well as the occasional antiquated spelling (‘scizzars’) and historical figure, such as the Duke of Wellington; Mary, Queen of Scots; and writer John Aubrey." Yvonne Zipp

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like her novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, this new volume of tales is resolutely sophisticated. … The mild wit and dry, often slightly cynical tone may also reassure readers and reviewers afraid of being accused of believing in fairies." Ursula K. Le Guin

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The fairies in Ladies are not the innocent creatures of flower-fairydom—their closest kin are the heedless fairies of folklore, jokers who trap humans in webs of tragedy and the fickleness of fate. … At worst, they are dark, dangerous and sadistic." Mary Ann Gwinn

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"Clarke, in following her 800-page bestseller with these short pieces, is engaged in an experiment, and it isn’t entirely successful. The fault lies mainly with the framing device, a faux-scholarly introduction that seems to promise a collection wider-ranging in time and tone than what she delivers." Laura Collins-Hughes

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Reading Clarke is like inspecting some wonderful antiquated craft, such as marquetry or fine hand embroidery. It’s just that there are yards and yards and yards of the stuff. … These stories are safe, quirky and unthreatening." Graham Joyce

Critical Summary

The eight stories in Ladies of Grace resemble Jonathan Strange in that fantastical creations change history, the 19th century takes on a modern spin, and charm and sophistication ooze off the pages. Here, Susanna Clarke casts a close eye on women, from fairies to damsels in distress—who, not surprisingly, tend to save themselves. Despite overall praise for the collection, reviewers agree that Clarke hasn’t challenged herself enough. While critics lauded "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby," "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner," and "Mrs. Mabb," some called other stories slight. An academic framework doesn’t help. In the end, Ladies of Grace weaves a similar magic as Jonathan Strange, but perhaps the book is not magical enough.