(review by Vida Cruz, ARC from Tor.com the Imprint)
Mistress Patience Gideon is a harmless middle-aged lady living with her teenaged foundling Gilly and her wolf-dog Fenric in the outskirts of Edda’s Meadow. She heals with herbs the ills of the locals who cannot or will not see Dr. Herbeau, the medicine man who comes around once a month. Unbeknownst to everyone except Gilly, Patience is a witch–a good one, though that doesn’t matter to the religious–and her house is a safe place for all passing witches, such as the talented doll animator Selke, on the run from the archbishop of Lodellan. Otherwise, life is mostly peaceful and quiet for Patience.
But when the spoiled, shapeshifting Flora Brautigan is publicly caught in the middle of shifting and a sinister figure from Patience’s past appears in Edda’s Meadow, Patience and every other witch in their village are in danger of being revealed and summarily executed. Under torture, it’s up to Patience to find a way out–not just for herself, but for everyone.
After reading Of Sorrow and Such‘s first page, which is full of Angela Slatter’s trademark lush sentences and skillful plotting, I immediately called up another file on my Kindle: Slatter’s first collection of stories in Patience’s world, called Sourdough and Other Stories. I intended to review what I knew of Patience before diving into Of Sorrow and Such, but that proved to be unnecessary, as Slatter weaves in and occasionally expounds on the necessary details–for example, it was such an Easter Egg Hunt moment to find Selke in the novella (her last appearance being the story “A Porcelain Soul”). Readers new to Slatter’s intricate world of witches will not find themselves scratching their heads and asking more questions other than the one important question: What happens next?
Patience appears in “Gallowberries”, one of my favorites in Sourdough and Other Stories. I remembered her to be a resourceful young woman well-versed in dark magic and whose deepest wish is for some place to call home and people to belong to. From “Gallowberries” to Of Sorrow and Such, much has changed about her Patience–even her resourcefulness, which has survived largely intact over time, has acquired a knife-sharp edge. She’s willing to get her hands very dirty indeed if that means saving her skin or else that of most of her kind: deceit, blackmail, abandonment, murder. This quality of hers is balanced out equally by her regrets about her dark past and her sentimentality toward Gilly and Fenric. There are two things that haven’t changed about Patience–from the plants she grows and collects to the people she harbors and even to the discord she sows among her enemies and the hope she scatters among her allies, she is a grower of things at heart, first and foremost. The second is that she can carry an entire story on her shoulders.
Just like Sourdough and Other Stories and its successor, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, Of Sorrow and Such is a staunchly feminist work. The extended length gave Slatter more room to explore the framework. You’ll find in this novella an array of vastly different women: old women, young women, spoiled women, virtuous women, ruined women, women desperately trying to survive, women loving other women, women loving men who hate them, women hating men who love them. There was even room to explore, though not quite expound on, different types of masculinity. Two kind, gentle examples–constable Haddon Maundy and bookshop owner Sandor–are juxtaposed against an array of righteous, egotistic, women-hating men.
One of the best compliments I can give any story is, “I read it in one sitting”. The same applies for Of Sorrow and Such–it’s got the steady pace of a horse at a clop and it had a vise-like grip on my attention. I won’t spoil the ending, but all I can say is that while it’s not exactly happy, it definitely feels right.