Materials from British folklore are reworked with beguiling narrative energy and mischievous wit in this first collection from the English author of the wonderful adult fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004).
Two of that book’s major characters make vivid reappearances here. In “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner,” the legendary magician the Raven King (aka Uskglass) tramples on a humble woodsman’s property while hunting, and is himself humbled when his victim enlists various saints to redress his grievance. In the amusing title story, gentleman sorcerer Jonathan Strange discovers during a country visit that “the magic of wild creatures [notably owls] and the magic of women” are indeed a match for his own. Elsewhere, Mary Queen of Scots, while imprisoned by her rival, England’s Elizabeth I, plots revenge through the medium of pictorial embroidery: Still, Elizabeth survives, and Mary loses her head (in “Antickes and Frets”). That tactic achieves better results when a British military hero strays into a remote domicile ruled by similar domestic magic (in “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse”). Odd things will happen, evidently, when mortals join forces or contend with fairy folk. “Tom Brightwind and How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” describes how Tom, a vainglorious and dictatorial otherworldly paterfamilias, is gently persuaded by his best human friend to improve the fortunes of the inhabitants of Thoresby, a village hitherto cut off from the world beyond it. Less benign supernatural intervention operates in tales relating an unhappy young wife’s risky escape from her boring old husband (“On Lickerish Hill”); a forsaken fiancée’s perilous dealings with the fairy temptress (“Mrs. Mabb”) who has stolen her beloved; and, in “Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower,” a country cleric’s refusal to be intimidated by a “powerful fairy” landowner’s disagreeable habit of seducing and exploiting innocent young women.
Irresistible storytelling, from a splendidly gifted enchantress.