Magical Banquet in a Minor Key: Angela Slatter’s A Feast of Sorrows

A quilter, a baker, a candlemaker: these are just a few of the young and vulnerable crafters in Angela Slatter’s first U.S. collection, A Feast of Sorrows, newly out this month from Prime books. This is a book where discarded wives, abandoned children, and princess assassins-in-training fight to make something of their lives, or struggle to restore them after their families and fortunes have been reduced to shambles. It has enchantments, ghosts, killers and many a terrible curse.

The dozen reprints and two new novellas from this World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award-winning author forms a gently interlinked circle of fairytales. Some are mash-ups of stories very familiar to readers: “Bluebeard’s Wife” is an inventive collision between “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White,” for example. Another, “Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope,” comes close to being a straight-up reimagining of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Dark, beautifully constructed, with heartbreakingly perfect prose, they are the stories of young women in trouble. Mostly, it’s the kind of trouble that comes of being female, young, poor, possessed of few options and—as a result—subject to the whims of indifferent, selfish or outright predatory men.

The links between these stories emerge slowly. In “Sourdough,” we meet a young woman who has her lover charmed out from under her by magic, and who uses her craft with bread and a touch of the supernatural to punish the woman who took him. The breathtaking “Dresses, Three” (which Slater wrote as a response to a challenge from author Mary Robinette Kowal), is a revenge tale about a dressmaker who colludes with her rapist’s next intended victim. In so doing, she secures a future, from her partner in crime, for herself and her child. As is also often the case in magical stories, though, she pays a different kind of price for her alleged good fortune.

In A Feast of Sorrows, the magic of well-made things is a motif that runs throughout its various tales. The work—baking, sewing, candlemaking, all by talented artisans—has its echo here in the real world in Slatter’s finely wrought paragraphs, and the measured unfolding of each story. There is a sense of the exquisite in the writing here, of plots laid down like pearls on a string.

The string is, like cobweb, at times nearly invisible. Any of these stories can be admired as a single bead, a gem to be taken on its own merits, without the broader context. But a third of the way into the book, around the time we meet Hepsibah Ballantyne of “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” there’s a glimpse of the web: characters in one tale pass rumours about events in previous installments, and Hepsibah herself shows up again in “St. Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls.” Readers learn some of the world’s operating system: we find that the dead must be treated carefully, for example, wooed into their final resting places, lest they otherwise creep around haunting the living. Word by word, pearl by pearl, Slatter embroiders a world that is all of a piece, an intricate quilt whose common thread is artisanal enchantment. She stitches deep lines between the crafty workings of women and the wealth and privileges of men.

Everything made by the characters in these stories also tends to be beautiful, whether they are books, bed linens, or coffins. They are lovely and deadly, items produced by poor girls for rich buyers, by spurned girls for unfaithful lovers, by prostitutes in desperate circumstances. Slatter’s characters are doomed by class and circumstance as often as they are by their own passions. Some, it might seem, had no chance at the outset.

This tone and the often painful endings that come with it are entirely appropriate for a book of fairytales, of course. At its heart, A Feast of Sorrows tells stories about people who trade for power, people who often have no choice but who are rarely bettered by its exercise. The culmination of the dishes in this feast are, truly, sorrows. Reading them all at a blast left me feeling bowled over, perhaps even, momentarily, a little hopeless. The collection, in other words, is very aptly named.

Slatter’s approach to this collection is reminiscent of the Gemma Files story cycle We Will All Go Down Together. Both take the folklore of Western Europe and tell a set of stories in a shared universe, and both have overlapping characters. Files has a tighter weave; her characters are more specific, less archetypal, and her overarching story comes to a firmer conclusion. But “Bearskin,” Slatter’s finale, ties off the fate of one of the last characters to emerge within her greater storyline, while leaving plenty of threads at the bottom of the loom. It is easy to imagine them waiting, ready to be anchored into the pattern.

For anyone who grew up with the sanitized versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (or, perhaps, the sparkling reimaginings of Hollywood’s animation houses) this book may come as a bit of a jolt. Angela Slatter will take you on a visit to an older and darker type of enchanted forest, one whose pools cast uneasy reflections, flickers of the familiar that capture the essence of failed human relationships across the centuries and also in the here and now.

A Feast of Sorrows is available now from Prime Books.

A.M. Dellamonica‘s newest book is the Prix-Aurora Award winning A Daughter of No Nation, and you can read the first chapter here! She has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travelhorror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also, “The Glass Galago,” the third of a series of stories called The Gales. This story and its predecessors, “Among the Silvering Herd,” and “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” are prequels to this newest novel and its predecessor, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic

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