How do you follow up on a massively complicated, 800-page, bestselling debut novel that took 10 years to write? Anything less is courting fan disappointment and cries of "Cash-in!" or "Sophomore slump!" But did anyone expect Susanna Clarke to disappear for another 10 years to write her second novel? Far more sensibly, she's returned with the polar opposite of her first book, 2004's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: a slim anthology of stories mostly set in Jonathan Strange's world, but without that book's ponderous density. Reading her novel was a bit like downing a five-pound sirloin; by contrast, The Ladies Of Grace Adieu is more like a tapas plate, delicately spiced and carefully presented.
The anthology includes intricate black-and-illustrations by Charles Vess, which seems incestuously appropriate; one of the stories, "The Duke Of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," is set in the world of Stardust, Vess' graphic-novel collaboration with Clarke booster Neil Gaiman. But that story could just as well take place in Clarke's pet world; it shares many of the same features. Many of Grace Adieu's installments, "The Duke Of Wellington" included, focus on the interactions between hapless Victorian patsies (who usually wise up or luck out just in time) and the capricious, proud, powerful fairies who live alongside them, but have little in common with them. In essence, it's a collection of fairy tales, but Clarke's version of fairies are as refined and idiosyncratic as her writing.
Fans of Jonathan Strange's high-flown scholarly style, with its many footnotes and references to ersatz arcana, may be disappointed by Grace Adieu's straightforwardness (which is still preferable to the distractingly busy patois of "On Lickerish Hill," a generic "Rumplestiltskin" retread that's the collection's only real disappointment), but it's hard to argue with the smart, whimsical stories, which pit fairies and magic-workers against each other, their own kind, and various other powers, with an emphasis on clever dialogue and clever solutions to knotty problems. Jonathan Strange himself puts in an appearance, as does his forebear the Raven King, but it isn't necessary to have read the novel to follow these entertaining fillips. For those who haven't read Jonathan Strange yet, Grace Adieu could just as well serve as a tempting appetizer, a way to ease into to Clarke's magical and thoroughly winning world.