Review of another Tartarus Press title that originally appeared in Black Static #49:-
THE BITTERWOOD BIBLE AND OTHER RECOUNTINGS (Tartarus Press hc, 277pp, £35) contains thirteen stories set in the world of Sourdough and Other Stories, author Angela Slatter’s previous Tartarus collection, showing us something of the past of that world and how its values and institutions came to be. And as before they are interlinked stories, with characters recurring and events in one tale illuminated by those in another.
We begin with British Fantasy Award winning story ‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’, the tale of Hepsibah Ballantyne who poisoned her father and took over his business, but is still haunted by him even though she took steps to ensure that no part of his soul was trapped in a mirror (in this world making sure the dead do not linger is part of the coffin-maker’s job). Thwarted in love, Hepsibah plots a deadly revenge, one which will have dire consequences in the stories that follow. When village girl Rikke rescues ‘The Maiden in the Ice’ she later discovers that Ella is far more than she seems, and the stage is set for tragedy when three local youths believe they can abuse the outsider with impunity. Gytha in ‘The Badger Bride’ is employed as a copyist by her father, a former abbot, but one day a sinister client brings her a terrible grimoire to reproduce, The Bitterwood Bible of the title. Fearful of what their client will do with such knowledge, Gytha finds within the pages of the book a way to escape her fate and the path to, if not true love then a reasonable substitute.
‘The Burnt Moon’ tells the story of the beautiful Hafwen, raped and then accused of witchcraft by her violator, setting the stage for a fiery cleansing of the town of Southarp. A spurned woman, abandoned by her lover when he moves on to higher things, left for dead with her tongue cut out, wreaks a terrible revenge in ‘By My Voice I Shall Be Known’, though there seems to be little satisfaction for her in the act, and even less of justice. ‘The Undone and the Divine’ sees Delling, a daughter of Southarp, return to cast a magic that will release the burned town’s tormented spirits, including that of the rapist whose actions brought about its downfall. Caulder in ‘The Night Stair’ is a city ruled by two ancient vampires, and the girl Adlisa attaches herself to their court plotting to destroy the monsters, but in attempting to do so she becomes a monster herself, that is the price she must pay. The story is compelling for the beauty of its plot and the subtle characterisation, and underlying the narrative is an awareness of how power works in the real world, the pragmatism of authority, those occasions when it is considered necessary to do bad things in a good cause.
In the wonderful ‘Now, All Pirates Are Gone’ buccaneers are being swept from the seas. Captain Maude of Astra’s Light is the very last of them, and in visiting a distant island where treasure is rumoured to be hidden she finds the cause of their disappearance. A sequel of sorts to ‘By My Voice’, it’s a lovely, whimsical tale, one that delights in the telling, but with undercurrents of sadness that run profoundly deep. Mercia attends ‘St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls’, ostensibly to learn the poison arts, but in reality on a secret mission for the archivists of the Little Sisters of St. Florian. She learns the greatest secret of the Meyrick sisters, the source of the poison on which their fortunes are founded. Again, while the story stands perfectly well on its own, delighting with the characters and incidents that populate its pages, and ending on a bittersweet note of love turned sour, there are also grace notes that tie it into the greater narrative taking form between the covers of this collection.
The title story tells of how Murciana scribed ‘The Bitterwood Bible’ and joined the Little Sisters of St Florian after being sent by a cruel Magister to consult an oracle, the story laying yet more groundwork for the remainder of the book. ‘Terrible as an Army with Banners’ gives us the overthrow of the Citadel at Cwen’s Reach, the stronghold of the Little Sisters, and the great sacrifice they made rather than have dangerous knowledge fall into the hands of the evil man who sought to consult their oracle Beatrice and turned to force when denied. There is something elegiac about this story, a sense of loss and realisation of how fragile learning really is, but also the need for a bulwark in the times of darkness, a repository for wisdom that might otherwise be lost.
‘By the Weeping Gate’ is a Cinderella variant, with a brothel madam determined to marry the most beautiful of her daughters to the new Viceroy, but he is not at all the great catch that he seems to be and the proverbial fate worse than death awaits his bride. It is up to the valiant Nel to save her sister Asha if she can. And finally we have ‘Spells for Coming Forth by Daylight’, in which Nel catches up with both Hepsibah Ballantyne and the Viceroy, whose true identity is now revealed, bringing the greater story full circle.
Okay, having exercised restraint so far, it’s now time for me to gush. This is a collection of stories in which each individual work is a perfectly crafted gem, and the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. Slatter creates a fantasy world, but she populates it with real people, wise women and malicious men, heroes and villains, monsters and magicians. It is history told largely from a female perspective, with the emphasis placed squarely on the preservation of knowledge and reverence for learning, rather than warfare and struggles for power, though those too are represented. As intricately plotted as Martin’s magnum opus, and with similar outbursts of bloody violence (often steeped in misogyny), this is not escapism regardless of its fantasy label, but its diametrical opposite, through the medium of a made up world showing us reality in all its ugliness and beauty. As of today’s date, I rate The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings the best book I have read so far this year.
And if none of that sells you on the collection, by way of bonus material there’s an introduction by Stephen Jones, an afterword by Lisa L. Hannett, and accompanying the text more than eighty line drawings by Australian artist Kathleen Jennings, all of which makes for a very impressive literary package, one that the fictional content more than lives up to.