Angela Slatter, The Bitterwood Bible

The Bitterwood Bible is marred by a homogeneity of tone and theme. It’s a collection of connected stories, but despite those connections, the stories would be better served by being read separately. Slatter’s prose is often lovely; it’s delicate and soft, and well tuned to the purpose of illuminating moments in the lives of her heroines. But in excess it becomes cloying. There’s a feeling after finishing these thirteen stories that you’ve read one, or at best two. These stories are, without exception, about young women in powerless positions; there’s nothing wrong with that, except that it could be the same young woman, acting out various setups of the chessboard.

The two strongest stories are the first, “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” and one of the least integral, “The Night Stair.” “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” drops the reader into its world with no help; we don’t know why the titular character tells the widow that her mirrors should be covered – but we soon find out. And this heroine is the most defined, and the least conventional: she’s not afraid to shirk her duty for personal gain. “The Night Stair” is a vampire story; in the end, this heroine takes up the mantle of vampirism because she would be the kindest possible vampire. Like the other heroines, the girls at the center of these two stories deal with power, both magical and social; the exploration is at its subtlest here.

Unfortunately, many of the rest of the stories run together. A young girl is in a disadvantaged position, probably due to a man’s influence; she will probably not come out of it happily or without personal sacrifice. There are worse formulae. But it is hard to read these stories without wishing for something to lift the mist of the soft prose and the sad situations. Further, the world these women live in is vague at best. Some of this is due to carelessness: a girl is referred to as having “platinum” hair in a setting that seems to be medieval or at best early modern. There are graver faults, however: in this seemingly medieval setting, a man wears a “three-corner hat”; there are “timepieces;” a girl goes to a “bookseller.” All this in a world with such intensely Old English names as Adlisa, Deor, and Oswain. There is no sense that this world is not medieval England, but it is clearly not supposed to be.

Lastly, while the prose is beautiful much of the time, there are a few noticeable lapses. Her characters are nearly always introduced with the color of their hair and eyes, along with another detail of their appearance:

A small woman with a pixie’s face, hard brown eyes and short blonde curls stares at me.

The door is unlocked by a short, pinched-face girl with dark hair and an ice green gaze, a black dress and a white maid’s apron over the top.

In the second example, the description of the girl, who speaks once and never reappears, is completely unnecessary; in the first, the description is inelegantly introduced. Then there’s the sentences like the much too modern “Silence all around as we file it under we’ll never know.” “File it under” implies, of course, a filing system, which would never exist in the world as she’s created it. Most egregious is “‘Blah, blah, blah,’ she says, rolls her eyes and makes to shut me out.” The character is supposed to be rude, but this goes beyond rudeness and into teenage petulance.

Nonetheless, in a genre overflowing with machismo and violence done by both women and men, perhaps we need a book that shows the quiet moments, with violence done subtly if at all. There are no great armies or hugely consequential battles here; it’s about the fate of single people, or at most villages. It is a shame, however, that the stories do not distinguish themselves from each other more.

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