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A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard

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In these sixteen exquisite stories Kat Howard deftly weaves in and out of the countries of myth and hagiography to write the lives of women untold and unexplored.

A woman being written into her boyfriend’s fiction is at first flattered to be his muse, but then finds her real life literally consumed and overtaken by his. A desperate young woman makes a prayer to the Saint of Sidewalks, but the miracle she receives isn’t what she expected. A painter spies a naked man, crouched by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, transform into a beautiful white bird and decides to paint him, and becomes involved in his curse. Jeanne, a duelist and a sacred blade for God and Her holy saints, finds that the price of truth is always blood. And in the novella “Once, Future” Howard reimagines the Arthurian romance on a modern college campus as a story that is told, and told again, until the ending is right.

Mundane and magical, profane and reverent, romantic and uncompromising, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone journeys into the liminal spaces of contemporary fiction and unfurls them.
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I first encountered Kat Howard’s fiction in her novella length collaboration with Maria Dahvana Headley, The End of the Sentence, and then again in her debut novel, Roses and Rot, a brilliant dark fairytale retelling. A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is the first time I’ve really engaged with her short fiction, with its arresting title, especially for an architecture and myth geek like myself.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone takes sixteen of Howard’s stories from the last decade (the oldest, and the first in the collection, is from 2010; the most recent is original to the 2019 collection), and allows the reader to luxuriate in her thematic and aesthetic approach. That approach comes wearing purple crushed velvet and listening to The Sisters of Mercy, Paradise Lost, and at its lighter moments, perhaps Evanescence; this is one of the most beautifully goth collections of stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

The stories are melancholic, and even formally tragic, without ever defaulting into cliches of how that should look; nothing in A Cathedral of Myth and Bone comes without cost, without payment, and nothing comes easy, but equally, nor is anything worthless, or without consequentiality. These stories reframe their narratives, often repeatedly; ‘Once, Future’, the original novella-length piece in the collection, most obviously engages with the idea of retellings and myth-patterns in its engagement with Arthuriana, but there is a theme of creating one’s own story and seizing control of the narrative running through the entire collection.

One stand out piece in this regard is the one that closes the book, ‘Breaking the Frame’; in it, Howard tells the story of how a woman goes from passive muse to active changer of the art to creator herself. In so doing, she changes the narratives the art also depicts. The layering of the story is typical of Howard’s work; the surface, simple read is true, but misleadingly simple, as depths reveal themselves with more consideration. Technically, the story also shows off Howard’s skill at creating verbal portraits; ‘Breaking the Frame’ rests on a series of photographs, and Howard’s brief descriptions of each are precise and powerful vignettes that really convey the imagery.

A very different story using a similar technique of narrative interspersed by something else is ‘The Calendar of Saints’, Howard’s homage to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside. It is simultaneously very familiar, in that regard – the sense of faded grandeur, the honour at the point of the blade, the ritual – and very different; a much more religious world, and the whole story centres on faith in an alternate Catholic Church whose nature and differences are slowly revealed as the story moves. The ending is tragic, unexpected, and beautiful, a signature Kat Howard ending judging by this collection.

It is hard not to talk about every story in the collection, but I would be remiss if I did not return to ‘Once, Future’, since it (length-wise, at least) dominates the volume. In it, a modern class on Arthuriana decide to test the narrative inevitability of the story, and it turns out to be a lot stronger than anyone (or almost anyone…) had anticipated; Howard’s take on the Arthurian myth, and modern engagements with it, is brilliant, and her characters’ approaches to the events of the various parts of the corpus (such as the Green Knight) are well thought out and intelligent, while still letting the essential course of the story shine through, and the tragedy of Arthur slowly unfold while also fighting against it.

What may not have become obvious so far is the centrality of women to A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. In all the stories, women are central; every story is about a woman, with the exception of ‘The Speaking Bone’, which is about a place, and even still the only solid characters are women, and ‘Painted Birds and Shivered Bones’, about a man and a woman. Howard’s women are not the simple maidens of much genre fiction; they are abused women, they are angry women, they are women with agendas and minds of their own, and in every case, they want control of their own stories, whatever that takes. The opening story, ‘A Life in Fictions’, is the weakest in this regard – the ending feels a little like a failure to really take agency back, especially in light of later approaches to similar dilemmas – but the women of the collection are universally intelligent and dedicated, in their different ways, and very different to each other.

If a collection can be said to reveal the author, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone reveals Kat Howard as a mythographer, as a woman demanding the right to her own agency and to control her own fate, as a goth… and above all, as a bloody brilliant writer.

Cottingley by Alison Littlewood

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In 1917 the world was rocked by claims that two young girls – Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths – had photographed fairies in the sleepy village of Cottingley. In 2017, a century later, we finally discover the true nature of these fey creatures. Correspondence has come to light that contains a harrowing account, written by village resident Lawrence Fairclough, laying bare the fairies’ sinister malevolence and spiteful intent.
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Cottingley is a historical engagement with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous folly, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922; whereas Doyle’s work was supposedly nonfictional, and about the glory of the fairies, based on the since-admitted fakes of Wright and Griffiths, Littlewood’s takes a somewhat different tack…

This is a horror novel, pure and simple, and takes part in many of the standard conventions of such. Cottingley is one of those books that very directly aims to chill the heart with rendering the familiar and cosy, strange and dark; in this case, Littlewood takes on the comfort of the woods, the idea of the fairy at the bottom of the garden, and makes it increasingly sinister and destructive as the novel goes on. The creeping horror is mountingly effective as the narrator is willing to believe in the fairies from the beginning, but becomes increasingly disconcerted by their natures; these are not the gentle fairies of Conan Doyle but a rather more sinister, bloody group of beings, more linked to earlier folklore. Littlewood builds up the atmosphere in stages, with minor malice and fascination growing by degrees across the course of the novella, with the hints of the evil right in the very first encounter but unwilling to be believed, before Cottingley changes entirely.

The entire novella is epistolary, correspondence from Lawrence Fairclough to Edward Gardner, who helped Conan Doyle investigate the real Cottingley Fairy photographs. Cottingley suggests Lawrence is an ardent admirer of Conan Doyle’s fiction, and drawn into the great writer’s obsession with fairies, seeks to investigate himself; the relationship between Edward and Lawrence changes and alters over the course of the book, although Littlewood only gives us Lawrence’s side of the correspondence, leaving the reader to try to fill in the gaps oneself, and attempting to work out what the other side has said to prompt certain parts of the letters.

The solipsistic nature of this approach has its drawbacks. While Lawrence’s daughter in law, Charlotte, and granddaughter, Harriet, are fleshed out somewhat, they remain relatively elusive and idealised in the letters themselves; Cottingley really only has one complete character, and even he is very limited as we only see him in retrospect of times of crisis. Littlewood distills the plot down to its utmost drama, but at the sacrifice of individuality; Harriet is a good, dutiful, bookish girl, while Charlotte is the model of a good wife grieving a husband lost in the First World War now looking after her father in law. Even Lawrence is little more than a caricature, a man looking for something to cling to after losing his son, and finding the fairies; Littlewood makes him somewhat sympathetic but largely this is by the forces raised against him, not on his own account.

In the end, Cottingley is a good piece of literary horror, and an excellent engagement with one of Conan Doyle’s weirder obsessions, but as fiction goes, Littlewood has sadly forgotten the importance of character.

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Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

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Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared while bringing the Gospels to the Dark Continent – not Africa, but Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae.

Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey to that extraordinary land, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
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Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun marries two powerful streams in British fiction; the gothic, a trend that goes back to the 18th century, with fairy tales, a genre that goes back much further. At first glance these two might sit uneasily together; does Ng make them fit?

Gothic is, in no small part, a matter of atmosphere; whether the Northern faded grandeur and isolation of Crimson Peak or the baroque claustrophobia of Mervyn Peake’s magnificent Gormenghast, that is the foremost marker of the gothic. It is one Ng embraces wholeheartedly from the very opening of the novel; we are introduced to Catherine, Under the Pendulum Sun‘s protagonist, as she reaches the strangeness and abstraction of the Faelands. The opening of the novel is then concerned with her journey to the preacher’s manse of Gethsemane; a pile of stone that simultaneously seems to have been altered over the years, and to have been built in one go with the appearance of great age. Empty, slightly decaying, and understaffed, Ng’s chosen setting partakes of a number of gothic tropes, reworking them through excellent language and a powerful, although not light, touch that really does create the horror innate to the genre; this continues in those few sections that take place outside the castle, where the moors or forests are twisted versions of ones familiar to us, and that twist is simultaneously dreamlike and nightmarish.

The plot is also suitably baroque; Under the Pendulum Sun concerns Catherine’s attempts to first find her brother, and then to discover what happened to the previous missionary to the fairies. Ng, loathe to leave no gothic tropes unused, also threads a forbidden romance into the mix, which burns slowly and alters the tenor of every character interaction between the only two humans in the novel, Catherine and her brother. The different plot elements are incredibly smartly done, and Ng wears her education lightly but effectively: events hinge in no small part on a matter of longstanding theological debate, and the degree to which theology is threaded through the novel as a lived concern cannot be overstated. The gothic cliches in the conclusion come thick and fast, but are well written, and Under the Pendulum Sun always makes sure the groundwork is laid for them.

Ng is less strong in her character work. Catherine is brilliant, and her emotional state decaying and fraying across the course of the novel is captured brilliantly, as are her varied desires in conflict with each other; Under the Pendulum Sun has a protagonist whose voice is never lost. Laon, however, seems a shallow character; he is a cipher for the plot, in no small respect, and without a strong sense of who he is throughout the book. The smaller parts are equally mixed fare; Mr Benjamin, the gnome gardener convert (whose mine was closed by the Lady of Iron), is a brilliantly curious little character, whose constraints and theological probing are at times hilarious and at times deeply moving. Ariel Davenport, on the other hand, is a rather thin character; Ng relies on Catherine’s attachment to Ariel to stand in as a proxy for reader attachment, and Under the Pendulum Sun suffers a bit for it.

The other place Under the Pendulum Sun suffers is stylistically. Ng has a beautiful, slightly baroque style, and a wide and fascinating imagination, encompassing sea whales and semiotic moths. At times, however, her style could have done with a tighter edit; there are points at which the text becomes repetitious or unclear, and occasional moments where the fantastic claustrophobia of the text becomes less an intentional trap of the gothic and more a frustration to the reader.

In the end, while Under the Pendulum Sun does have some shortcomings, Jeannette Ng has written an utterly brilliant gothic novel, using all the tropes and cliches of the genre and rising above them in magnificent style. I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: Jeannette Ng is a friend.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

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I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.
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Folklore and mythology have always been fertile ground for genre fiction; Joanne Harris herself, with an added Iain Banks-style M., has previously touched on the Norse sagas in novels like Runelight and The Gospel of Loki. Now, though, she’s turned her sights to a mythology far more rarely treated in fiction: that of the Child Ballads, in this case, specifically Child Ballad 295…

Harris’ novella retelling the story of that Ballad is focused, as is the ballad itself, on the wronged woman at its heart; the “brown girl” of the title. In A Pocketful of Crows, Harris makes this titular woman a witch, a member of the “travelling folk” who can take on the form of animals and do certain magic. She falls in love with a local lord’s son, William McCormac. This fall is precipitous and extreme; Harris writes sympathetically and with a lot of heart about the way our protagonist slowly realises how deep her attachment to William is, and the way her denial of it slowly falls away, over the course of a series of months; and the way he slowly accepts her and draws her in, tempting her into the human society he is a part of and naming her Malmuira. As a result of this, she loses her powers, and Harris writes about the trade off of magic for love with a real beauty; it’s heart-wrenching but worthwhile for the protagonist, even as she regrets the loss.

Of course, this can’t continue; A Pocketful of Crows isn’t a romance, after all. Instead, William casts aside Malmuira on the orders of his father, as an unsuitable partner; at which point Harris’ narrative takes on a colder, crueler turn, as she seeks to regain her old powers and freedoms. This takes up the latter two thirds of the book, as the woman who was nameless then named Malmuira frees herself from the tangle of human concerns involved in loving William; it’s a dark series of events, and Harris revels in that darkness, really giving it weight and heft. However, A Pocketful of Crows doesn’t just delve into the darkness; it contrasts that with the way its protagonist finds her freedom through this darkness, and how she returns to herself rather than the person tangled up with William. The way Harris ties these two narratives strands together, and then slips a third brilliant twist in right at the close of the novella, is absolutely brilliantly crafted.

This section, the latter two thirds of the novella, contains both the most beautiful writing in A Pocketful of Crows, and also some of the least effective. The darkness and frustration of the protagonist is powerfully evocative, and the way Harris calls the passing seasons and changing world to mind brilliantly and with a real sensorium. However, it can also drags a little; scenes feel repetitive as nothing happens or changes, and as we experience slight variations on the same events time and again, losing some of the edge of the book.

Throughout the story is a theme of identity as mediated not by the individual, but by the way the individual is perceived; as Malmuira’s identity in the public perception shifts and warps from William’s bit on the side to an evil witch, the character herself finds herself freer of human society and the constraints it imposed on her powers. A Pocketful of Crows is deeply concerned with the idea of the mutability of stories; the way Christianity is overlaid on old folk beliefs, the way fear of witches can develop and be fostered, and the way stories change are all things that Harris doesn’t foreground so much as allow the reader to glimpse the importance of as she tells this dark tale.

The big flaw in the novella is the way it carries certain racist tropes from its inspiration. A Pocketful of Crows is based on a Child Ballad, which carried tropes about mystical Travellers and magical dark skinned people. While Harris makes her brown girl into a non-human being, solitary and isolated, a truly magical witch rather than a Romani person, there is still a hint of the way much Western literature caricatures the Romani people in there, perhaps inescapably.

In the end, though, A Pocketful of Crows is a dark tale, and a savage one, and a beautiful one; Harris really shows what she can do with the short form in this little novella.

Disclaimer: Joanne Harris is a friend. This review was based an ARC, without illustrations, provided by the publisher, Gollancz. An event to launch the novella will be held at Waterstones Argyle Street, my place of work, on October 18th.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind, her spirit, and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds―and the mysterious man who rules it―she soon faces an impossible decision. And with time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won’t soon forget.
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Wintersong is one of those books that is getting hype all over the place, in part I suspect because of the way its plot (and indeed aesthetic) recalls the cult classic film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. So, does it stand up to the comparison…?

In some ways, Wintersong is very much in the shadow of its inspirational predecessor. S. Jae-Jones has drawn strongly on the aesthetics of Jim Henson’s puppets and Ellis Flyte and Brian Froud’s costuming of both Jareth and Sarah, such that the Goblin King of the novel very strongly resembles the striking portrayal by David Bowie, including hair and slight androgyny. Similarly, the goblins strike the reader as rather Hensonesque, with the way they are described not recalling specific puppets from the film, but the whole aesthetic of the film. The big difference is in the setting; the late 18th century Bavarian setting of the real world and the very much more subterranean, earthy and claustrophobic setting of the Underground world are new to Wintersong, and Jae-Jones recalls them very clearly to the reader’s eye, not necessarily with precise strokes but with broad, evocative ones.

The other key aesthetic difference is the way Jae-Jones uses music in Wintersong. Music is the driving force of the novel, from Liesl’s music with her brother to the strange interest in her music of the Goblin King; music, its playing, its composition, its style and its quality run as themes throughout the novel, in a very explicit way. The problem here is that evoking something so auditory as music on the page is virtually impossible; different media manage different approaches, from only showing its effects, to putting in the notation in a comic, but describing it with a mix of specific (such as key and tempo) and general really doesn’t work. Instead, what the reader is left with is the sense of missing out on something, instead of Jae-Jones having achieved something.

The plot is a neat little thing of twists and turns, in five sections, each with its own way of turning what came before on its head; Wintersong diverges increasingly far from the Labyrinth template as you get deeper into the book, with an interesting approach to developing romance and love, and what those things can mean, explored by Jae-Jones. The different permutations of relationships in each movement are really well explored, and the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King isn’t a simple, one-dimensional one, it’s a complex, changing thing, that develops alongside their characters across the course of the novel.

That character development is the core of Wintersong; it’s Liesl’s bildungsroman, and also to some extent Josef’s (happily queer!) bildungsroman in the background and enabled by Liesl. The way Jae-Jones handles that character development is subtle and never made explicit, very carefully; the whole book, being told in third person from Liesl’s point of view, shows the development in everything from the narrative voice to what it focuses on, but no one ever talks about growing up. We also see different ways of growing up and accepting oneself, dealt with very neatly.

In the end, Wintersong is let down by itself; if S. Jae-Jones had stuck to the emotional and visual-aesthetic story, this would be a brilliant fairy tale. As it is, she tried to deal with turning the purely auditory into text, and there, she failed, and in doing so, let the whole book down.

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy of the final novel provided by the publisher, Titan Books.

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The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

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Imagine a world… where cats can talk. Where fairies are snarling, bald beasts with needle-like teeth. Where a huge, dark library hides secrets in its shadows. And dangerous creatures prowl the pages of books. Dare you join Alice on her quest to find a happy ending?
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The Forbidden Library is one of those old examples of an author who writes for adults – in Wexler’s case, full-on musketry-and-magic fantasy – turning to the market of children’s/YA literature. And there the story could have ended, in an ignoble attempt to straddle the river…

But The Forbidden Library doesn’t do that. The Forbidden Library, in fact, has a very similar attitude in many respects to The Shadow Campaign novels; that is, it’s honest, open, up front, doesn’t try to be cleverer than the readers (which doesn’t mean it isn’t clever, only that it isn’t trying to put one over on the reader), and doesn’t talk down to its readers. The Forbidden Library has an excellent narrative voice, and one that is only ever found in children’s and YA literature; confiding, curious, kindly and impish all at once – here without asides to the reader, but with a lot of engagement with them all the same. It works excellently, feeling a little antique, as it should (the novel is set in the late 1920s/early 1930s) but also beautifully relatable.

That also goes for the central character, Alice. The Forbidden Library has a huge secondary cast, but one primary character who we follow throughout the book; Alice, a brilliantly independent, intelligent girl who is still very much also a girl of the early twentieth century. It’s an interesting balance, as Wexler doesn’t wholesale adopt the attitudes of the period – but does note them; Alice’s father is remarked on as being unusual in his treatment of his daughter, for instance. Alice is a character the reader (whatever their gender!) can identify with, the competing impulses of curiosity and rule-following treated in a serious way utterly unlike almost all YA fiction (no rebellious teenager, Alice!).

The rest of the cast are a little flatter, but this is in part because they tend to have little screen time; The Forbidden Library isn’t interested in Geryon, Mr Black, Isaac, Ashes or the rest per se, particularly, only in Alice. That doesn’t mean they’re dull characters; each is interestingly written and unique, with a personality of their own, it’s just that for the most part those personalities are rather simpler than the complex one Alice has. Isaac comes closest, with his layered deceptions and ability to play on Alice’s sympathy, and Ashes is an unbelievably fun companion, even by the standards of talking cats, but on the whole they’re simply less interesting because Wexler is less interested in them.

Of course, a young adult book, and arguably a fantasy novel in general, is nothing without a rollicking plot; on that score, The Forbidden Library is perhaps a little weaker. While individual episodes are fantastic, engaging, interesting, and indeed suspenseful, and while the reader can really be caught up in them, there are also frustrating lacunae where one feels Wexler forgot that the intermediate stages have to grab the reader too; getting from episode to episode can at times be like fighting through a swamp, while the action itself is more like running a properly maintained track. This uneveness does detract from the book, but the track is definitely worth the swamp, even if it does all leave one feeling a little like one’s read a three-hundred page prologue, with a lot of set up and very little payoff.

The Forbidden Library is not flawless, and is very binarist and heteronormative compared with Wexler’s epic fantasy, but as far as YA fantasy goes, you could do worse – for readers young or old – than this rather fun work.

To Spin a Darker Stair by Faith Mudge and Catherynne M. Valente, illus. Kathleen Jennings

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Forget everything you think you know about fairytales…
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Tehani Wessely of Fablecroft Press is one of the number of Australian editors producing really interesting work… that unfortunately isn’t seen enough by the wider world. To Spin A Darker Stair is an excellent example of how fairy stories can be told in a revisionist manner, and come out of the process truly fascinatingly.

Both writers in this slim volume have taken a traditional fairy story villain and reworked them through a feminist lens; the witches in Rapunzel and in Hansel and Gretel. Each takes the stock character from their fairytale and explains them; not content with the simple “evil witch”, To Spin A Darker Stair instead takes the Maleficent approach: seen from their own angle, and with more information, these characters move from unsympathetic to tragic figures whose bad ends we mourn, rather than celebrating. The recasting also, of necessity, recasts the roles of some of those around them; while in Valente’s ‘A Delicate Architecture’ only the witch is affected and Hansel and Gretel’s arrival only comes at the end of the story, let alone their interactions with the witch, Mudge completely recasts Rapunzel into a much darker, more interesting figure and her family in an altogether grimmer, tragic and arguably Greek light in ‘Oracle’s Tower’.

The way these fairy tales work is by their magical feel; both Mudge and Valente capture the feel and idea of ‘fairy tale’ excellently, combining the impossible magical whimsy with cultural tropes and ideas to create a story that really sticks. To Spin A Darker Stair contains two very poetic, very lyrical writers whose work can’t be discussed without discussing their style; it flows like a folk tale, rather than feeling like a story written down. It has the lilting rhythm of something that has been spoken time and again, worn smooth by tongue after tongue wrapping around its parts. However, ‘A Delicate Architecture’ suffers from a certain repetitious slowness and arguably a degree of obviousness; while ‘Oracle’s Tower’ uses its tragic inevitably as an inexorable, oncoming thing that gives the story a mythic power, Valente loses that rather, as she seems to try to gain that power while not quite successfully achieving it.

‘Oracle’s Tower’ alone makes this volume worth buying, but bring in Wessely’s introduction and ‘A Delicate Architecture’ and I recommend it not just to fans of fairytales but all readers everywhere.