readingtrance

book reviews by Althea

Review: A Feast of Sorrows

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A Feast of Sorrows
A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

***** Sourdough • (2007)
When a baker is called upon to demonstrate her wares for a big wedding catering order, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with the groom. But things happen as they will. Although it’s an arranged marriage, it’s unsurprising (except to the baker) that the fiancee is none too pleased with their affair. The events that transpire will involve curses and revenge. In these stories, there tends to be no ‘innocent’ party.

***** Dresses, Three • (2008)
Terrible and exquisite. A low-born seamstress of exceeding talent is ‘passed-around’ by her wealthy society-lady clients. Her young son tags along with her, keeping out-of-the-way in the servants’ quarters. But the latest client wants three dresses that will be more remarkable than anything yet created.

**** Bluebeard’s Daughter • (2015)
Weaving together elements of the tale of Bluebeard, Snow White and Hansel & Gretel (among others), as usual, Slatter creates something entirely new – and quite disturbing. Our protagonist is used to her father’s wives not ‘lasting’ long in their household. But this latest wife is stubbornly sticking around, and quite possibly, is doing away with her stepchildren.
‘At times, we’re all the evil witch…’

**** The Jacaranda Wife • (2008)
A selkie story, transposed to colonial Australia – where the nuances and the tragedy work just as well as in a more traditional (Celtic, watery) setting.

**** Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope • (2009)
More traditional than not, this retelling of ‘Rumplestiltzkin’ puts the emphasis on the emotional relationship between the miller’s daughter and her deceased mother.

***** The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter • (2011)
Haunting (literally) and chilling story. Although plagued by her father’s ghost, a young woman carries on with the family business she inherited from him: she’s the only coffin-maker in her town. Her ‘monopoly’ means there’s certain liberties she can take…

**** By the Weeping Gate • (2013)
You can hear the writer reading from this story online, here: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcas…
A hard woman moves to town; running a brothel that’s staffed by her multiple daughters. All the girls are available to clients but two – one is judged too ‘plain’ for the job, and the other, the youngest, is being “saved” for something special – the madam has a plan to sell the girl in marriage to the mayor, assuring herself a step up in society. But even when the daughter/maidservant learns something terrible about the mayor, the madam has no interest in changing her plans. Fairy tale meets Lovecraft in this tragedy.

***** St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls • (2014)
I love all of Slatter’s stories, but in this one I found myself identifying with the protagonist more than is most of her work.
A young woman has entered a very special school, masquerading as a bit of a charity student. While most of the students at St. Dymphna’s are rich girls whose families want them to have the skills to kill their future husbands over festering feuds, she is purportedly being trained as an assassin-for-hire. But the truth is something other again – she has her own goals and ambitions – and a reason for being at St. Dymphna’s.

***** By My Voice I Shall Be Known • (2013)
It’s a familiar and unsurprising story – but never less painful to the one it happens to, for all of that. A devoted partner and longtime girlfriend is thrown over by her merchant lover when he makes his fortune, and can aspire to a wife from a higher echelon of society. Seeking revenge, the jilted woman makes a bargain with the mermaids…

**** Sister, Sister • (2009)
Once a queen, a woman is now reduced to life in a brothel. (A brothel where a remarkable number of characters from earlier stories seem to have ended up.) It’s actually not the worst place to live; the woman who runs the place is fair and considerate. But that’s not to say that the woman doesn’t have plans to leave, or that she doesn’t hold serious resentment against her sister, whose lies caused her husband to throw her over and make that sister his mistress.
However, there’s more to this story that she realizes… rumors are going around of children disappearing, and this betrayal may have deeper roots.

***** The Badger Bride • (2014)
A copyist-for-hire is assigned to make a replica of a mysterious book. But when a certain something happens, involving a wild badger she and her sisters took in for the winter, she suspects that the grimoire is a dangerous and too-powerful thing… But does she have any choice but to deliver on her father’s promises to this wealthy client?

***** The Tallow-Wife •
Just beautiful – and sad. As the story opens, we meet a woman who’s been jailed, forced to work making candles from her cell. Flashing back, we see her as a privileged woman; enjoying life with a successful husband, a busy social calendar, and beautiful and beloved children. Her household includes servants that she treats affectionately, and her younger sister. Her biggest worry is that her handsome husband is a little bit too rigid about the proper role of a wife. But it’s all about to come unraveled…

*** What Shines Brightest Burns Most Fiercely •
This is a direct sequel to the previous story, and I suspect it also makes reference to other characters previously introduced in stories set in what the author refers top as the “Sourdough world.” It settles some questions, and gives a particularly reprehensible character his well-deserved desserts – but as a stand-alone, I thought it was a bit lacking.

***** Bearskin • (2015)
Mixes a number of familiar folk tale tropes and comes up with something entirely new – and beautiful. Following unfortunate family circumstances, a young boy has been apprenticed to a huntsman. He could not be more fundamentally unsuited for the job: a timid, book-loving child who’d hoped to become a scholar. The huntsman is a rough and tumble type with no patience for milksops. When the boy finally kills an animal – a bear cub – it’s by accident. But that deed will instigate a cascade of of circumstance in which we discover there’s something stranger than we’d guessed about these woods.

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