Occasionally, when we are all very good, the story-gods are kind to us, and they send a writer whose voice and vision are so deeply felt, so confident and so intricately imagined, that the whole of their work is a wonderment from end to end. I experienced that electric wonder-shock to the senses on first reading Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners (for example), or Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (which I read before reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for reasons that made sense at the time, but are now forgotten). And now, I find myself experiencing the feeling of wonder-shock anew. The author is Angela Slatter and the work, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. This collection of interwoven short-stories really is that good. I think even if I had only been allowed one page of this short story collection to use as the basis for my whole review, I’d still be recommending Angela Slatter unreservedly. The prose jumps off the page the way prose does when the person responsible is a master at their craft. Sometimes, you don’t need more than a sentence or two. Sometimes, you can just tell. But as it was, I had the luxury to be drawn in, and to step my way through all the tales within. And what tales they are.
We are told in the author’s notes that this collection of short stories started as a sequel that turned out to be more of a prequel to Slatter’s 2010 work, Sourdour and Other Stories. The tales are set in the same world, a sort of parable-esque offshoot of our own history. The world Slatter has created feels perfectly poised on the cusp of reality, in the same way that Gormenghast, or the twin countries of Guilder and Florin, might just, might almost, just perhaps, have been real–if you squint at them sideways and imagine that somehow the relevant chapters in the history books got themselves skipped in high school. But it isn’t just mere verisimilitude or attention to the small details of life that work so well here. Angela Slatter’s writing is one of the best examples I can bring to mind of the adage that the best sort of fantasy is deeply rooted in realism. Yes, there may be undertakers who talk to ghosts, and pirates, and sorcerers, and badgers that change into people and back again, but the emotion, the people, the relationships, the families, and most of all, the loves and the hates, the revenges, the primal centres of these stories: all of this is profoundly real.
Too much of what passes for fantasy is self-referential and intricately imitative, like clockwork copied from clockwork, until all sense of what the mechanism was for in the first place has been lost. Too much of what is shelved as fantasy represents only the barest and most bloodless variations on a set of common themes. These fantasy tropes are repeatedly warmed over, served up again and again… until the whole edifice of fantasy can feel at once childish, and at the same time, strangely conservative in its ponderous execution. But in Slatter, we have a skilled voice refusing to play by the accepted rules of fantasy. Slatter has done what really excellent fantasts do, in that she has pillaged far and wide, finding bits of folklore, or old stories, or ideas that have not been sapped of all life by repeated re-use; and she has spun these into a fabric of genuine originality. Readers of folklore will have some fun spotting references. Roger Bacon’s brazen head is lurking in these pages, as is the tragic Mélusine, although both are reworked in cunning, intriguing ways. Readers who are tired of flashing swords and dragons will find quieter more poignant magic here: herbs and poisons, wedding gifts, the humble scratch of a quill, the magic of stitches long-ago sewn. Readers who long for a bit of magic, but are leery of those lurid covers that promise flashing swords and dragons will find herein a potent concoction of the literary, the beautifully observed, and the wonderfully imagined.
In the end, I suppose, it comes down to this: I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
The hardback edition I have in front of me has been gorgeously produced by Tartarus Press, complete with numerous elegant, humane little illustrations by Kathleen Jennings sprinkled throughout. Although The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings can be purchased as an ebook, I recommend getting the hardback if you at all can. It is very much worth the price of entry into the strange and wonderful world within.