Details: (c) Hope Mirrlees 1926; Pub Millennium Fantasy Masterworks (Gollancz) 2000; ISBN 1 85798 767 5
Verdict: Lud-in-the-mist is a highly readable fantasy from before the genre conventions were established.
Reasons for reading it: There was a kerfuffle some while back on LJ where feminists were getting angry with some critic for being insufficiently admiring of Mirrlees. And enough people with good taste enthused about her to convince me that she's really important, not just to feminists or worse, tokenists who need some women&minorities for their lists of greats. I have a feeling papersky was one of the people raving about Mirrlees, but I'm not sure of that.
How it came into my hands: The marvellous Oxfam Books in Cambridge when I was visiting this summer.
Lud-in-the-Mist is beautifully crafted. It draws heavily on traditional folklore, but it is doing something very original with the Fairyland trope, not just retelling folk tales in novel form. There's a somewhat playful, even arch undercurrent which is very appropriate for the material, but it's also completely true to the story, never stepping outside its framework to share a clever joke with the reader. At the same time, it's rather sinister; there were several moments reading when I experienced that "Noooooo! Don't go into the grim ruin while the spooky music is playing!" feeling. It has a really impressive balance between a sense of Tragedy where the terrible events are absolutely inexorable, but without falling over the edge into despair; it's an exciting story and there's just enough of a glimmering of hope to make it enjoyable to read. The ending as such might be called a happy one, but it's wonderfully ambiguous.
The solidity of the world is really impressive, without being didactic. Admittedly, the class consciousness is very strong and rather weird, to a modern reader. I'm really not sure how much that's 1926 and how much it's Dorimare, though. And I really can't imagine why feminists like it; the women are both extremely passive and extremely annoying. In general, the characterization is very good even though I had the very strong impression that the author doesn't like her characters very much. It's not so much that they're unsympathetic; they are plausible people with flaws as well as good qualities. But the narration can be quite cruel to them in various ways. It's the particular shape that I really appreciate, where ordinary people can make big differences by doing the right thing in a crisis.
It's not an allegory or satire by any means but I think it is, subtly, saying something about what it is to be human, as well as telling a readable story. And what it's saying is not at all romantic, despite the context. It made me think a great deal, but it's very accessible as well.
I think people who are wildly enthusiastic about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell would also be wildly enthusiastic about Lud-in-the-Mist. It has very similar strengths, though it isn't nearly so long! And it's very interesting to read fantasy that is absolutely independent of Tolkien, neither trying to imitate him nor reacting against him.