Susanna Clarke made a dazzling debut with "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," which was the sort of fantasy story that Jane Austen would have written. Still fresh from her first bestseller, she presents a new array of captivating stories in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu." But expect it to be more whimsical.
The title story takes place in the magical Regency period of her debut: dull Mr. Field remarries after his wife died, and his pretty second wife, his niece, and a friend soon become good friends. When Mr. Strange passes by on a family errand, he discovers that there is more -- these ladies are all magicians, and have quietly escaped the boundaries placed by society.
From there on, Clarke trips through a series of strange, fantastical stories: when a young newlywed finds that her rich hubby expects her to spin flax, she asks for help from a nasty little fairy, who will kidnap her if she doesn't guess his name. Think a Regency "Rumplestiltskin."
Then a young lady tries to regain her boyfriend from the mysterious "Mrs. Mabb"; a Duke changes his destiny with a pair of scissors and a needle; a Jewish doctor and a fairy nobleman travel through England; the Queen of Scots becomes fascinated by an embroidered figure; and a young pastor finds himself enmeshed with a cruel fairy lord. One of the stories is even set in the world of Neil Gaiman's "Stardust."
"The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories" is more fantasy and less history than the full-length novel, although it leans more heavily on history. But then, most of these short stories may not be in the same universe, and they range from whimsical little fluff pieces to almost-horror.
Clarke still writes with the solid nineteenth-century style, flavoured with shimmering descriptions of "Pharisees" and odd creatures, although Clarke occasionally skimps on just what "goblin babies" look like.
The second story is also amusingly written in much-mispelled English ("...lookes at me with his bewtiful Eyes..."), and Clarke peppers the other stories with older words like "shewed."
There are also some deeper moments, where Clarke approaches the lack of freedom given to women (magical or not) where they only have marriage to a well-off dullard to look forward to. And though the shorter stories are not much more than fables, the longer ones have intriguing characters who are likable in an understated way.
"The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories" is a solid little collection, more whimsical than Clarke's first book. Very pleasant Regency "Pharisee" tales.