You could easily be forgiven for never having heard of Lud-in-the-Mist. Heck, I only picked it up on a whim, thanks to a raving cover blurb from Neil Gaiman, who recommended it as one of his all-time favorite novels. Even then, it sat unread on my Kindle for a long while until, as I was reading some articles about Susanna Clarke’s masterpiece Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I found multiple references to the book as a possible source of inspiration. And having read the book, that connection is pretty undeniable – Lud-in-the-Mist feels like a clear ancestor to Strange, a quiet, quintessentially English fantasy book about dealing with a history that we’re not quite comfortable with and questioning whether it’s okay to acknowledge art, music, and such “frivolous” matters in the world.
But more than that, Lud-in-the-Mist feels like a genuinely overlooked classic, a beautiful little piece of fantasy that’s been ignored and forgotten for nearly a hundred years. Yes, Lud-in-the-Mist is nearly a century old, but you wouldn’t know that offhand; it has a wonderfully timeless feel to it, as though it’s outside of any typical signifiers of time and place. It’s the tale of the titular village, where any mention of the Fairy Kingdom over the hills is verboten, where any reference to Fairy magic or efforts is among the greatest taboos, and where life is pretty simple, down-to-earth, and sensible. That is, until the children of one of the big families in town start eating fairy fruit, and a strange new dance instructor comes to town, and everything else starts getting…well, weird.
Like Strange and Norrell, Lud-in-the-Mist is as much about its world and its characters as it is any sort of story. The plot is simple, and pretty low-key; in fact, the novel’s climactic scenes take place entirely off stage, and are left largely to our imagination. No, it’s a book about digressions, and character dialogues, and debates about the proper way to approach the world. It’s about the strange things we observe when adults aren’t around, and the ways in which we sometimes feel that there must be more to the world than the everyday reality around us. And more than that, it’s about how we handle realizing that we don’t fit in anymore, and when we have to follow our own spirit.
It’s a wonderfully human novel, and although I commented that it feels quintessentially English (it’s very much a novel about restraint, shameful behavior, and proper manners, in some ways), it resonates far beyond its story and setting, touching on great and rich themes all while never betraying its fantasy setting. You could easily argue that the book is basically using its fantasy world as an allegory, and while that’s not necessarily a false claim, it also overlooks just how rich and detailed the world is, and how committed it is to that world. The brief glimpses of the fairy worlds, for instance, are genuinely strange and odd, and they feel like something truly foreign to us, in a way that doesn’t rely on symbolism or Big Themes. (It captures that sense of the strangeness of magic that Neil Gaiman so often relies upon; it’s really no wonder that he loves this book so much.)
It’s a quiet little piece of fantasy, but it’s no less wonderful for its simplicity and beauty, and it’s not hard to feel that it’s been unjustly forgotten. Lud-in-the-Mist feels utterly unique and timeless, and I mean that in the best way; it’s a window into another world that still feels as relevant today as it did 100 years ago, and still feels fresh, engaging, funny, beautiful, and rich, even with 100 years of imitators who could have come after (but don’t seem to have done so). If you’re a fan of Gaiman or Clarke, this is an essential read, plain and simple; if you’re a fan of true fantasy – and not just the epic kind – you might find something wholly new and remarkable here. But one way or the other, it’s a book that deserves to be embraced and more fully recognized as the beautiful work that it is.