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9 December 2017

Review - The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen

Cover by Elizabeth Story
The Emerald Circus
Jane Yolen
Tachyon, 24 November 2017
PB, e-book, 288pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

The title of this collection of short stories and poems alludes to the fourth, Blown Away, which is a reworking of The Wizard of Oz - or perhaps a prequel, sequel or accompaniment, featuring a Dorothy who, though blown away by a tornado, does not - or at she claims not - end up in the land of Oz the Great and Powerful but in a circus. When she returns to Kansas with many new skills it seems though as if she might as well have been whisked to that land of magic and illusion.

And so it is with most of the stories here. They present new insights, new takes, on a familiar fairy story or childhood classic. Sometimes, as with Andersen's Witch or Rabbit Hole, the creator is entangled with the creation, as we see the young boy Hans bargaining with a witch over his future, or Alice at the end of her life pondering what her attraction for Mr Dodgson was (genuinely unsettling, the end of this one).

Sometimes Yolen's take is implicit in the original story, once you look, that is, and then you wonder that no-one had joined the dots before. For example, in Lost Girls, we're shown Neverneverland from a distinctly feminist point of view, with Peter shown up for keeping the women cooking and cleaning while he and the other Boys have all the fun (and in so doing he misses something very significant about his world).

Yolen sometimes returns to a setting or a theme. As well as Rabbit Hole, there is Tough Alice in which her younger self is making one of what appear to be a series of visits. As well as the usual Carrollian Surrealism - a pig turning into pork loin and back again, Alice pondering, on seeing that the Caterpillar has gone fishing, whether he uses with worms or whether that would be "too much like using his own family for bait" - there is a darker strand, the need to battle the Jabberwock. Alice looks for a champion, but where will she find one?

A Knot of Toads is a rather different story. It's not a riff on fairy stories so much as a more straightforward take on a favourite author of mine, MR James. This is a tale of Janet, a 1930s scholar from Cambridge (of course) come home to settle her father's affairs in the remote Scottish town of St Monan's. Janet is estranged from her dad ("Father and I had broken so many fences - stones, dykes, stiles and all") but sis till troubled by his mysterious death and his writings about an unsettling encounter with a  toad. In true Jamesian spirit he has meddled with something best left alone, and in true Jamesian spirit he recorded his doings in manuscript, for Janet to unravel. Of course Monty never wrote a female lead and as this nice little story observes the proper forms it dynamites their conventions, not least by bringing in a love interest. My favourite story in the collection.

The Quiet Monk is the first of several stories in this book with an Arthurian theme (but we never meet Arthur himself, of course). Set in Glastonbury in 1191, it features the opening up of a rather remarkable grave, and a brother who claims to have wandered long and who has stories to tell.

The Bird is the story of a raven, and Virginia, and a writer named Edgar - one of several stories in which, like Andersen's Witch or Sister Emily's Lightship (where Emily Dickinson has a strange encounter which shows her the whole world and how she can live in a narrow place) Yolen winds a little magic round a writer's life.

Belle Bloody Merciless Dame is an eerie and effective collision between a gritty Glasgow and the otherness of - what exactly? There is mention of an elf, on a Solstice - and Sam Herriot has an encounter that he'll always remember (if, that is, he ever finds his way home).

The Jewel in the Toad Queen's Crown is a wonderful story, a mashup of 19th century British politics, cabalism and fairytales. It shows the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as an outsider figure, who, faced with the Widow of Windsor, resorts to certain... unusual... methods of managing his monarch.

The Gift of the Magicians, with Apologies to You Know Who, is a deeply strange take on Beauty and the Beast which both explores the practicalities and possibilities of Beauty's situation. What is the relationship between that castle and the outside world? Where does the food come from? Just how much can you achieve - even which "the magical help"? And what might that drive a girl to do?

Our Lady of the Greenwood is about the birth of Robin Hood. It's a table of moonlight, magic, promises, and protection, taking another, rather mysterious folk hero and plugging him firmly into a wider, yet living, context.

The Confession of Brother Blaise is a kind of counterpart to Our Lady of the Greenwood focussing this time on Merlin and, again, plugging into real history via the real Geoffrey of Monmouth. What is real and what's merely written down? When does the writing make the reality?

Wonder Land, despite its title, isn't another Alice story but has loose overtones of Red Riding hood. A girl is making a journey through the wood to tell her friend where Billy Jamieson had tried to put his hand...and where she let him put it. The animals she meets seem to illustrate her theme -  a fox exposing its private parts, a pair of crows "doing it right there". It's not an innocent woodland, but Allison seems to know what she's about. And yes, there is a wolf too.

Evian Steel again takes us to the world of King Arthur with a simply bewitching tale of pagan women swordsmiths working in the mysterious mists of Somerset. A perfect story and I don't want to spoil it by saying anything about what takes place, but in many ways it encapsulates this book: these are women who are explicitly marginalised, who will be left out of the main story (reduced to an arm holding a sword out of the lake) yet they are central, indispensable, skilled - in control.

Yolen rounds off the book with notes on all the stories and with a poems suggested by each, or which suggested them or explores the same themes. As a way of gently closing down the book, echoing the themes of the stories and showing a wider world there from which they are drawn, this is hard to beat.

Overall a very strong collection of stories showcasing the talents of a master practitioner. Definitely not a book to miss.

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