And Then I Read: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Ladies of Grace Adieu cover
Text ©Susanna Clarke, illustrations ©Charles Vess

Following on the great success of her epic novel, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” Susanna Clarke’s collection of short stories is in much the same vein, even using the same alternate England in most cases, and with appearances by a few of the characters from the novel in two stories. One other story takes place in Neil Gaiman’s Wall, as written about in his novel “Stardust.”

Susanna Clarke writes tales of British magic heavily laden with the history and literary techniques of previous centuries, something she has obviously studied and enjoyed thoroughly. Once you get used to the odd spellings, long and complex sentences, and footnotes, you are drawn into her world quite effectively. The magic she writes about is that of British folk tales without the candy-gloss of Victoriana. In other words, her fairies are dangerous, even brutish creatures at times, nothing cute about them. Her spells have consequences and exact a toll on the spell-caster as well as the spell victim. If you enjoy books about magic, you’ll probably enjoy these clever stories. If you want more about the world of her novel, you’ll find some here, as well as other things.

The wonderful and numerous illustrations by Charles Vess lend charm and atmosphere to the book in a way that was common once, but is rare now. These are all line drawings in Charles’ familiar style, with echoes of book illustrators from the past. One thing that I was noticing here was the way he letters his titles, with all the lettering open, and all the lines doubled. Here’s a sample:

Vess sample

Charles has been doing this for a long time, and I find it quite an effective technique. His letter forms suggest old printing, but with a loose charm. Yet a single wobbly outline would look a bit too crude, the double outline somehow makes it work much better. I don’t think I’ve seen this technique used by other artists, though I may be wrong. I’ll have to ask him next time I see him.

The cover of the book again suggests printing styles of the past, particularly the 19th century, with the art and titles embossed in two colors onto the gray cover board, and no dust jacket. This is the British edition, so the American one is a bit different. Again, a charming touch, and one that will stand out in the bookstore in contrast to the glossy, garish colors of most new hardcovers.

Well done, good reading, recommended!

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