Any author who comes with recommendations from Donovan, Alan Moore, and Ben Graham (author of Amorphous Albion, an Illuminatus! Trilogy for the 21st Century) must be worth checking out. And so it proves. Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers is unlike anything I’ve read for some time.
The closest comparisons I can think of are the excellent Folk by Zoe Gilbert, and the early, pre-lapsarian chapters of the unsung The Testament of Yves Gundron by Emily Barton. But Mandrake Petals owes nothing to any other book. It builds its own world and operates according to its own internal logic.
That logic is the logic of folklore and fairy-tales. It’s a book which seems to have arrived fully-formed, telling stories from an alternative England of long-ago, populated by curious folk with wonderful names: Elmskin, Crow Jack, the gullible Mullops, Littleberry, and the cheeky, trickster vagrant Pickapple.
There are story arcs throughout which come and go, such as Pickapple’s constant teasing and tricking of Mullops (and, indeed, anyone else foolish enough to pause at his crossroads); and (the spine running through the book) lovelorn Elmskin’s unending, and surely doomed, search for Rimmony. Because Rimmony herself is in search of Flax Wing, who may not even exist…
The invention on display is breathtaking. Rimmony can weave together anything, including shoes from a tree that sheds leathern leaves. Mermaid Cummonly tries to stow away on a ship that navigates the forest treetops, until it sinks into the forest and she is cast overboard. Not everything is explained: we never, for instance, find out exactly what sort of creature a Mardolf might be, and that’s exactly as it should be, though I hope never to meet one. The characters display the instinct for survival and brute cunning of Ted Hughes’s Crow.
Just like a poet, author David Greygoose has a wonderful ear for rhythm, and makes superb use of – for example – the law of threes common to fairy-tales: “But Mizzle did not walk. She would not walk. She could not walk.” “Sometimes they’d be springtime green, sometimes soft summer yellow and sometimes russet as the autumn leaves.”
This language casts a spell, such as here: “There was a girl as lives in the woods. She had not eaten for a year and a year, only cobwebs and sips of dew.” In the true storyteller tradition, not a word is wasted. The reader can’t skim a paragraph, lest they miss someone transforming into something else: a dove into a crone, say, or a man into a water-dwelling horse. As the aforementioned crone, Coppen, retorts to a girl whose dying mother she has turned into a (living) goose: “A changed life is better than no life at all.”
Folklore and fairy-tale is the model for these stories, and that of course doesn’t necessarily mean happy ever afters. In fact, I’m not sure there were any, because at every moment things can turn suddenly dark: “I’ve hanged men, too…That’s what I do. Make a noose. String ’em up. Let them drop.”
Whatever you’ve been reading lately, Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers will be different. It’ll fill your head with hedgerows and earth and rough magic: perfect for the lengthening evenings. Take one story a night, just before bedtime. Repeat as necessary.
More about Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers (publishers website)
Buy it! (Amazon – I’d normally suggest Blackwells but they’re out of stock)