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The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess
Review by Judy Newton
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 076531214x
Date: 01 November, 2004 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Anyone who came of age during the great folk boom of the nineteen-sixties and seventies will be familiar with the ballads that make up the matter of this book. Illustrated in the manner of graphic novels by Charles Vess, each story has text contributed by one of the masters of the modern fantasy genre and is based on a ballad documented in the seminal scholarly source, The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, by Francis James Child. Considering how much that genre owes to the ancient magic traditions these ballads are steeped in, it would seem to be a natural conceit.

And indeed, most of the time, the execution lives up to the expectations excited by such names as Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen, and Emma Bull. Many of these authors have contributed to collaborative efforts in the form of the shared-universe novels of Borderlands. Neil Gaiman, of course, has won awards both for traditional text-based and graphic novels. Sharyn McCrumb has written a series of novels based on folktales.

The text contributors were apparently given wide latitude in their interpretations of the source material. Some hew to strict literal retellings (Neil Gaiman?s story, ?The False Knight on The Road,? is surprisingly sparse in text although thrillingly dramatic in illustration; the knight becomes increasingly terrifying and the landscape echoes his transformation while engaged in a riddling contest with the stalwart scholar), while others add their own embellishments to the ballad?s story.

Many authors have taken to heart the quotation from Delia Sherman cited in the helpful introduction contributed by Terri Windling: ?What I like about ballads is that they?re plots with all the motivations left out.? Addition of historical contexts, original dialog, exotic cultural settings, all contribute to fleshing out these motivations and providing wonderfully varied interpretations. Charles de Lint has even integrated a ballad into his own fictional universe. Thus, ?The Twa Corbies? (in one of the most effective stories) become the Crow Girls. A mix of graphic styles adds to the enjoyment. Evocations of Aubrey Beardsley, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and others together with Vess? naturalistic style and attention to detail (one example is the cradle carved from a ship?s mast ? ?For I?m married to a ship?s carpenter? - in Delia Sherman?s ?The Demon Lover?) create a volume full of marvelous enchantments.

Mostly, this strategy succeeds very well. Midori Snyder solves the mystery of motive for hardhearted ?Barbara Allen? by having young William be possessed by a faerie. Only Barbara?s rejection will free him, but it results in both their deaths. It works in the context of this book. In ?The Black Fox,? Emma Bull sets the foxhunt in the nineteenth-century English countryside. The banter among the English country-house set and a visiting American woman add an edge to the appearance of the Devil in the shape of a fox. Jane Yolen?s ?Great Selchie of Sule Skerry? fleshes out the biography of the woman who had a child by ?a man upon the land?a Selchie on the sea.?

There are some stories that don?t work as well. In one example, Charles Vess? own ?Tam Lin? injects Celtic Wiccan elements into a story that already had plenty of enchantment in its own right. But the good ones far outweigh the others.

Another annoyance: the spotty footnotes for the unfamiliar words in the ballad texts that follow every chapter. ?Tam Lin,? especially, could have used them. But this is a quibble about a terrific, enjoyable book. I kept hearing the versions of these ballads I know in my head as I read it. A discography is included, but if the publishers want a real value added suggestion, a companion CD with sung versions of the ballads would be perfect. I?d buy it.

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