Review: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Lud in the Mist CoverLud-in-the-Mist is a 1926 early fantasy novel by Modernist author Hope Mirrlees. It is set in the city of Lud-in-the-Mist in the land of Dorimare, who shares a border with Fairyland. Following a brief but bloody revolution in the city’s past, the Duke of the city was replaced by the merchant class, and fairy fruit was made illegal and taboo. Somehow, however, to the present day fairy fruit keeps creeping into the city, and the novel focuses on the mayor of the town, Nathaniel Chanticleer, who gets caught in a fairy fruit-related controversy and must get to the bottom of who is behind it.

On many fronts, this novel has always been well-regarded: it was reprinted in the 1970s in the highly influential Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, and in the 2000s in Orion Books’s Fantasy Masterworks series; furthermore, many notable contemporary fantasy authors, such as Michael Swanwick and Neil Gaiman, are active proponents of the book. Despite this, however, the book has never reached a particularly wide readership. Knowing all of this, I was particularly interested to see how I would like the book.

One reason for the novel’s lack of wide appeal might be the overall tone of the novel, which affects both the writing and the plot. When I first started reading this book, the adjective I used to describe the book was ‘strange’: the writing seemed meandering, and it was hard to tell where the story was going. Once I started getting into it, howver, the adjective that I began to use instead was ‘charming’. One reason for this is that Mirrlees, in her writing, likes to put important pieces of information in places you don’t expect (in the corner of your eye, one might say), and at first it can make the writing seem meandering, but once you start seeing how the pieces fit together, it starts to become really satisfying. I found this to be especially true on my second read-through, wherein my love for the book grew tenfold as I noticed the ways in which Mirrlees weaves the elements of her plot together from the very beginning.

What I have said about the writing above applies equally to the plot. Its meandering nature is perhaps due to the novel’s mixing of various genres, being, at times, a history book, a comedy, a ghost story, and a detective story. This makes it very difficult to tell where the story is going, but as with the writing, I found that the more I got into the plot, the more I started to appreciate the charming way in which all the different plot elements and types wove in together.

While talking about the plot of the novel, I do also have to talk about the ending. When I first read the ending, I found it (specifically, one particular part of the ending) quite anti-climactic and disappointing, seeing it as a bit of a let down after all the build up leading up to it. Once I had finished the book down, I could see why Mirrlees had decided to write it like that, as I could see the ways in which it tied to the overall themes of the novel. Despite that level of appreciation for it, however, I can’t quite shake off the initial disappointment I felt, and I still consider it one of the weaker elements in the novel.

One final element I have to touch on (and one which I love the novel for) is that the novel can be an analyst’s dream. Particularly, fairy fruit is handled in the novel in wonderfully polysemic ways, allowing it to be read as standing in for (homo-)sexuality, gender, and art, with each of those readings uncovering delightful nuggets in the story. This makes the novel stay with you long after you have put it down, and it makes a re-reading of the novel so much more enjoyable, as you can chart they ways those sub-texts are handled from the very beginning of the novel.

So, conclusion time. I absolutely love this book, and completely understand the high regard people like Neil Gaiman have for it. At the same time, I can see why the novel has not reached particularly wide appeal: it can be quite hard to get into. That said, I do highly recommend the novel to all lovers of the fantasy genre (particularly those who love Gaiman’s Stardust, as that is clearly influenced by this) willing to stick with the story. There is a lot to love about this book.

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