My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While these stories include enough background information to function as a stand-alone, I think this is best read after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. (One of the stories is actually set in Wall, the town featured in Stardust. It’s been a long time since I read that and didn’t matter at all, although a couple of familiar names were dropped.)
Anyway, there are a couple of reasons you should read Clarke’s other work first. The chief one is that all but one of these take place in the same universe, an alternate Napoleonic-era England where magic is coming back into use, and the other one is that Clarke’s style takes some getting used to if you generally read modern fiction.
I was pretty infatuated with 19th and early 20th century literature for a while, and Clarke’s style doesn’t quite reach those levels of grandiosity, but they are written closer to that style. The sentence structure tends towards complexity and the language is understandable but archaic. It does work for both the subject matter and the era the story is set in, given that she presents all of this with the framework of ‘scholarship’ (including footnotes from a professor of Sidhe studies). And, again, it’s not completely prolix as did happen sometimes. This isn’t a serialized novel, and I would assume Clarke wasn’t paid by the word.
Oh, but there are nice illustrations! Woodcut-style, credits to Charles Ness. (If you can’t remember what woodcuts look like, David Malki’s Wondermark! uses them for comedic purposes.)
Note: One of the stories in this is written in dialect, which may be more challenging for some.
Right, so what are these actually about? You may want to know!
They are set in the same time period and all include themes of magic. The biggest difference between these stories and the novel is that these explore the human-fairy connection a lot more strongly. All of the stories have some association with Fairie, even if it is subtle, as in the titular story (which also includes Jonathan Strange as a character—this is where knowing the book comes in most handy). There is also a lot more focus on women in these. Clarke isn’t making any grand overtures to feminism or whatever here, but if you have read the book you know that ladies aren’t supposed to be mucking around with magic (it’s mentioned in the first story, if you haven’t). So it’s fun to see that they do, anyway, seemingly with more aplomb than Mr. Norrell would ever dream of.
So yes, if you’re looking for the continuing adventures of Jonathan Strange or even Mr. Norrell (or Mr. Secundus, whom I was certainly hoping for more about), this isn’t it. The characters are a motley array, and the one thing they all have in common is some kind of brush with Faerie, ranging anywhere from accidental and fragmentary to deliberate and prolonged.
If you liked the book, I would absolutely read this. If you did not like the book, I’m not really sure what you’re doing here, although the heavier style is easier to absorb with the faster pacing.