Angela Slatter – Sourdough and Other Stories

I just knew I would like Angela Slatter. Everything I’ve heard and read about her just screamed “read me, read me”. Fairy tales with twists, fairy tales from new perspectives, mythology and lyrical language? An Angela Carter vibe? Hell yes! 2015 continues to be good to me when it comes to discovering new authors.

sourdoughSOURDOUGH and Other Stories
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Tartarus Press, 2010
Ebook: 238 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: ‘Why are you so dark, Ella?’ squeals Brunhilde, the king’s daughter.

Welcome to the beautiful magic, restless passion and exquisite horror of Angela Slatter’s impeccably imagined tales. In the cathedral-city of Lodellan and its uneasy hinterland, babies are fashioned from bread, dolls are given souls and wishes granted may be soon regretted. There are ghosts who dream, men whose wings have been clipped and trolls who long for something other.

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A good short story collection has at the very least a great first story and a great last story. This one does not have the greatest first story and I was almost worried after reading “The Shadow Tree”. I thought I had bought a nice enough collection but the surprise twist at the end fell rather flat for me. After hyping myself up to reading this book, I was expecting the collection to start with more of a bang.

But I kept reading. After all, this was only one of many stories. The further I progressed in the collection, the more I fell in love, the more I was on the hunt for the connections between the stories. For they are (almost?) all connected, whether because a side character in one story is the protagonist of the next, whether we follow the next generation of characters, the babies left behind, the children spirited away by trolls, the witch’s apprentices… The collection is like a real-world collection of stories you get from asking the women in a city to tell you of their life. It’s vibrant and touching and sometimes just utterly devastating.

sourdoughAngela Slatter has created a tapestry so richly drawn that each character springs to life. There are witches and princesses, kitchen maids who come into riches, changelings and trolls. Fairy tales may be the basis for many of these stories, but Slatter doesn’t just put a small spin on them. She takes the “evil” characters and shows them for flawed, multi-layered human beings. Or in some cases not so human. She gives the fairy tale princesses agency, a reason (other than a witchy kidnapper) for Rapunzel to be in her tower. She makes her women real, simply because they are allowed to choose their own path. That freedom often leads to them making mistakes, but at least they are their mistakes. These aren’t the fairy tale princesses that need to be kissed awake or married to be happy.

I go before the same woman, by the same secret ways, under the same witch’s moon. I do not think I will walk out alive. My bones will sleep under dirt and stones somewhere within these stout walls. No one will look for me; no one will care. Some bargains, once made, should not be revisited. Indeed, some bargains should not be made at all.

All of this shines even more because of the beautiful language. Slatter’s skill is just stunning and it becomes clear, when reading certain passages, why she loves writing short stories so much as opposed to longer works (although I hear there’s a novel coming out). Short story writers don’t have the luxury of many pages to explain, to describe endlessly a banquet table or a pretty girl’s dress. They need to get to the point fast and, in the best case, they need to do so with beautiful language that evokes emotion in the readers. Angela Slatter does just that. With one sentence, she builds entire castles, she sets the tone for an entire story, she feeds us a character’s history.

Pious mothers bring newborns here and donate their babies’ breath.

One story was so sneakily atmospheric, so dense and creepy, it actually gave me nightmares. Dolls that come alive? Yeah, that’s terrifying. Even though, in the story, the dolls aren’t evil, they are still dolls with a sliver of soul in them and that idea followed me into my dreams. Well done, Angela Slatter, well done indeed!

But don’t expect a collection of horror stories now (I’m just a chicken and dolls creep me out, that’s all), there is a little bit of everything in here. Love stories that end well, and some more love stories that don’t. All stories center around women, their friendships and rivalries, their children and what they’re willing to do for them, how a chosen loving family is better than a rich one that may share your blood. And witches. Lots of witches.

The water flowing beside this small, remote castle runs as cold as a serpent’s blood.

My favorite bit about Sourdough, apart from the title story about a young baker who makes bread in wonderful animal shapes (among others), was how interconnected everything was. Names would pop up in later stories and I’d recognise them as the baby from an earlier story. An old witch could be a side character in one story, only to show up again later as a young woman and tell us her story. Rapunzel’s tower makes frequent appearances in these tales – the world of Sourdough feels like a real, lived-in place and despite all the terrible things that happen to good people, I would really like to visit there someday. Because, you know, it’s that kind of book.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent
(with some room left for the quasi-sequel collection The Bitterwood Bible)

P.S.: Alix, you will love this!

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A short anectode about Tartarus Press:

I bought an e-book copy of both Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible via the Tartarus Press webpage. There was some trouble with the delivery of these books because they went to a wrong e-mail adress (Paypal messed up). So I wrote to the nice people at Tartarus Press, explaining my problem and asking if there was any way they’d send me the ebooks anyway, to my current e-mail adress. I realised, of course, that an ebook copy of each book had gone into the aether and it would be totally understandable if I had to purchase them again.
You already know where this is going, don’t you? Shortly after I sent my e-mail, I received an answer with both books attached and a few lovely lines wishing me fun reading them. As a result, both Angela Slatter and her publishing house have a new fan. Seriously, that was really nice!

Second opinions:

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