Monday, 20 April 2015

The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter

The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter can be taken as a collection of short stories or as a mosaic novel. I requested the fancy limited edition hard cover version of this book for Christmas before finding out that I was to be an Aurealis Awards judge for the category, which is why this review is going up a few months after I read the book. Of course, the views expressed in this review are my own and do not reflect the views of the judging panel. Indeed, this review is based on notes I made before consulting with the other judges.

The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings returns to the world of Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus, 2010), introducing readers to the tales that came before. Stories where coffin-makers work hard to keep the dead beneath; where a plague maiden steals away the children of an ungrateful village; where poison girls are schooled in the art of assassination; where pirates disappear from the seas; where families and the ties that bind them can both ruin and resurrect and where books carry forth fairy tales, forbidden knowledge and dangerous secrets.

So what is a mosaic novel? In this case, it's a collection of short stories that are all set in the same world with a few overlapping characters. The book grew on me as I read on and actually the first story was my least favourite. That said, it connected really nicely with the last story and to me that really pulled the whole book together. The middle stories were all more obviously tied together. I suspect the first and last stories might have the strongest connection to Slatter's other collection/mosaic novel in the same universe, Sourdough and Other Stories. Either way, I went and bought the ebook of Sourdough pretty much as soon as I finished The Bitterwood Bible.

Slatter's writing is beautiful and her stories are poignant. This was my first exposure to her writing and it has not been the last (OK, that statement might have had more weight if I hadn't also read two other collections of hers for Aurealis judging... but I am going to read more of her work). As always, I've made notes on every story below. I find it really hard to pick a favourite. I loved most of them as I was reading them and there are many scenes that have really stuck with me.

I would highly recommend The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings to all fans of short stories and of fantasy. If you haven't read any of Slatter's work before, do yourself a favour and get on it.

~

The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter — A stranger story than I was expecting, with a few (intentionally) unpleasant elements. But not a bad one. Not sure I would have opened with it. Except that it makes sense to open with once you've read the whole collection.

The Maiden in the Ice — As longer story, spanning more time and events. Told mostly from the point of view of a girl who finds the maiden in the ice then later shows sympathy towards her when the town doesn't. I like it.

The Badger Bride — A really nice story about a girl who copies books (in the monkish sense), a strange commission and a badger who wanders in out of the cold. I enjoyed it.

The Burnt Moon — Another good story. I am enjoying the vengeance against rapists. In this one a town is plagued by rats as punishment for what happened to the mother of the previous story's protagonist.

By My Voice I Shall Be Known — A young woman slighted by her suitor who scorns her for someone else after she helped him become successful. Then he tries to have her killed, succeeding in only having her tongue cut out and setting her on a path to revenge. Also there are rusalky.

The Undone and the Divine — A daughter comes back to the town her mother played a downfall in (in "The Burnt Moon") and deals with the residue, but physical and spiritual. The father of the badger bride also makes an appearance. I'm really starting to appreciate how gorgeously linked these stories are.

The Night Stair — A girl becomes a substitute daughter for the vampire couple that rule the town. But she is cleverer than they expected as she seeks vengeance for her dead sisters.

Now, All Pirates are Gone — The other woman from "By My Voice I Shall Be Known" is abandoned by her husband and left to lure all the Pirates to their deaths. The main character survives, possibly thanks to an encounter with the earlier story's protagonist.

St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls — The sister of an earlier protagonist is sent to a deadly finishing school. Her goal not primarily to learn assassination but to secretly copy a book of poisons. Much is rent asunder in her wake.

The Bitterwood Bible — Both the genesis of the titular book and the tale of a girl sent to find magical answers who ends up finding a safe place in the world.

Terrible as an Army with Banners — and epistemological chronicle of the fall of the nunnery that was mentioned several times in several stories.

By the Weeping Gate — a family of prostitutes, the sister too plain to be one and the shady man who has appeared in earlier stories. This time, he is a viceroy and seems, at first, to be ok.

Spells for Coming Forth by Daylight — the final story which gives the very first story due context. Neo of the previous story has gone forth to confront the shady man and comes across other women (and indeed the man) who have played parts in earlier stories.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Tartarus Press
Series: Sort of a prequel to Sourdough and Other Stories but stands alone.
Format read: Fancy-pants hardcover
Source: Christmas present
Disclaimer: Tsana was a judge for the Aurealis Awards, on the panel which judged this book. This review is the personal opinion of the writer, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any judging panel, the judging coordinator or the Aurealis Awards management team.
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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