BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Interconnected stories of dangerous books, witches and wise women, fey folk from a different realm and girls trained to be assassins, professional poisoners and healers. This collection introduces the sisterhood of Little Sisters of St Florian and is set in the world of Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, acting as an origin story for the events in the previous collection.
PROS: Exquisite prose; a shared world where the stories bleed into each other to establish a vibrant and sprawling mythology; complex portrayal of women as protagonists and antagonists; the breathtaking pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.
CONS: The collection ended. Honestly, I could read at least three more volumes with tales in this world.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s among the strongest short story collections on the market and it will fill your heart with darkest wonders.
With The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings Angela Slatter proves why she’s one of the most important voices in fantasy. Fairy tales have seen a strong resurgence in recent years, but only Slatter understands them well enough to distill the essence that made them influential and prevalent and create her own mythos. She succeeds in her task and her short stories rival Grimm’s fairy tales in their darkness, danger and viciousness.
No one is beyond a bloody end and damnation no matter how pure of heart they are, which makes for the best storytelling in my opinion. While there are no wicked stepsisters cutting their own feet to fit a glass slipper or dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes, Slatter gives us amputated limbs, death by rat infestation, horrible transformations, cannibalism, ghosts that stalk and harm the living and frequent poisoning. The perfect ingredients for a page turner and what a page turner this collection is.
Much of the impact of The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings comes from Slatter’s prose, because women with power a fairy tale do not make. Her writing is lyrical and brims with the old magic that wedged the original tales in the world’s collective memory. Each sentence she writes, she constructs with precision and purpose. Slatter doesn’t waste a single word and even the tamest and most straightforward story in this collection (for calling any story here weak would be a crime) is captivating.
In terms of themes, the stories gravitate towards the position and power of women in society that is run by men. How do you wield powerful magic when you can easily be executed as a witch? How do you carve your own way in a world that’s inherently hostile? How do you defend your honor and avenge your loved ones? Slatter examines how these women work the already established social order to their advantage and illustrates the power plays that occur in secret places, dark forests, dimly lit rooms and during the dead of night.
Each short story is self-contained and vary in subject matter. You have the last voyage of the pirate ship Astra’s Light and her captain Maude in “Now, All Pirates Are Gone”, the secret mission of Mercia in “St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls” as she learns the secret arts of discreet assassination and the daunting cleansing of a whole town Delling performs in “The Undone and the Divine”. What gives the collection momentum is the ever-expanding world which connects events, characters and objects into one intricate tapestry.
Minor characters barely mentioned in one story take the stage as either villain or hero in the next, while main characters in previous stories make short appearances. Mother Magnus and Hepsibah Ballentine cannot be more different from each other, but both elicit such joy when they reappear in subsequent stories. Within this greater narrative, the reader learns the story of the Little Sisters of St Florian, their rise and the battle with their greatest enemy. It’s perhaps of the most epic books written, but constructed and edited with enough skill to convey such rich lore and backstory in only 270 pages.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings belongs on your shelf.