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Fun With Fairies
on 25 August 2006
The eight short stories in this collection are set in the same England as Clarke's popular novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which I have not read), an England in which magic is at least nominally present and faeries are human-like creatures with very considerable powers. All but one of the stories, which range in length from a few pages to 45 pages, have been previously published over the last ten years in various anthologies such as Starlight 1, 2, and 3, and Black Swan, White Raven and Black Heart, Ivory Bones.
Although the leadoff story, which gives the book it's title, concerns Dr. Strange and a trio of witches, the bulk of the stories (and certainly the more memorable ones), revolve around the capricious doings of various powerful fairies. A somewhat less powerful fairy is at the heart of he second story, "On Likerish Hill", which riffs on the Rumplestilsken story. The third story, "Mrs. Mabb", is an excellent old-fashioned tale about a poor young woman whose fiancee has been ensorcelled by a fairy queen. "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," is a comic interlude featuring the famous hero of the Peninsular and Napoleonic Wars, and how he survives an accidental visit the the Fairy Kingdom.
Another longer, and somewhat more engaging story is "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower", in which a Cambridge scholar turned local rector matches wits with the local fairy lord. Another long and fairly decent story is "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge...," in which a Jewish doctor and fairy lord making their way cross-country stumble upon a village severely in need of a bridge. What happens is somewhat obvious, but it's a story well told. The seventh story, "Antickes and Frets" is a somewhat perfunctory one about Mary Queen of Scots and some magical embroidery. The final story, which appears here for the first time, is the brief "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner". It's another classic story, this time of a lowly woodsman taking on a fairy lord, matching prayers to the saints again fairy magic.
On the whole, the collection should be of great interest to fans of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and of intermittent interest to those unfamiliar with Clarke's work. The prose is generally highly formal and stylized, which matches the tone of the stories but becomes somewhat tiresome over the course of a book. Similarly, the plots of the various stories often cover the same ground (humans matching wits with fairies), so that reading the book straight through becomes a touch tedious. Taken individually, each story has something to recommend it, and I suspect that they would feel much more distinctive in their original appearances, alongside the works of many different kinds of writers. in that vein, perhaps the best way to approach this book is to read a story of month or so, mixing it up with other kinds of reading so that Clarke's voice retains its distinctive nature.