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July 1999
 
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Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirlees

Hope Mirrlees only wrote one fantasy novel, but it is one of the finest in the English language.

The country of Dorimare (fundamentally English, although with Flemish and Dutch threads in the weave) expelled magic and fancy when it Banished hunchbacked libertine Duke Aubrey, 200 years before our tale starts. The prosperous and illusion-free burghers of the town swear by 'toasted cheesecrumbs' as easily as by the 'Sun, Moon, Stars and the Golden Apples of the West'. Faerie is, explicitly, obscenity.

But fairy fruit is being smuggled over the border from Fairyland: eating it gives visions and can drive people to madness. The fruit is so illegal that it cannot even be named: smugglers of fruit are punished for smuggling silk, as if the changing of the name will change the thing itself.

The Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nat Chanticleer is less prosaic than he would have others believe. Without his knowledge, his young son, Ranulph, has been fed fairy fruit.

Now the fairy world - which is also the world of the dead - begins to claim the town: a puck spirits away the lovely young ladies of Miss Crabapple's Academy for Young Ladies; Chanticleer stumbles upon the fruit smugglers, and is framed for smuggling; Duke Aubrey is sighted; old murders will out; and, in the end, Chanticleer must cross the Elfin Marches to rescue his son.

The book begins as a travelogue or a history, becomes a pastorale, a low comedy, a high comedy, a ghost story and a detective story. The writing is elegant, supple, effective and haunting: the author demands a great deal from her readers, which she repays many times over.

This is a book about reconciliation-- the balancing and twining of the mundane and the miraculous. We need both, after all. It is a little golden miracle of a book, adult, in the best sense, and, as the best fantasy should be, far from reassuring.

—Neil Gaiman

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