Advance Review: Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange

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Tales-of-the-Marvellous and news of the strange coverTales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is a collection of Medieval Arab fantasy tales translated into English for the first time. It delivers what it promises—a collection of strange, puzzling, and unexpected tales about Jinn, statues that move, wonderful gardens, love, and friendship. The book also has with an excellent introduction in which Robert Irwin describes the manuscript’s original location, its possible date of origin, and the types of tales therein. He also elaborates on various aspects of the tales and the characters inhabiting them.

As Malcolm C. Lyons is doing a translation rather than a retelling or a paraphrasing, the book reflects any damage or inconsistencies in the original text. For the most part, this does not hinder reading, and Lyons has often included some explanation in square brackets to enable the reader to go on. Unfortunately, the first story, “The Tale of the Two Rivers,” is nearly incomprehensible even with these bridges. Those looking simply for a pleasurable read should consider skipping this one at first and coming back later, once they are already interested. These are short stories, so no harm will be done, and doing so will give a better sense of the tone and type of tale included. There are no other stories as badly damaged in the rest of the book.

This is, as Robert Irwin notes in his introduction, a collection of literary rather than folk tales; in fact, he suggests it might be better read as early pulp fiction. The stories share with literary fairy tales the sense that there are folk roots to them and the love of elaboration. They share with pulp fiction the love of being larger than life and twice as colorful and, for the most part, a disregard for overt moral summaries at the end. Like European folktales and early pulp fiction, they share the uglier trait of racism: The darker a person’s skin, the uglier and less trustworthy they are. For the general effect, think Perrault and The Arabian Nights with more than a bit of Edgar Rice Burroughs thrown in.

Readers won’t find fairy godmothers, poor woodcutter’s sons, or sleeping princesses. They will find separated lovers, treacherous women (and foolish men), cross-dressing warrior women, poetry, mermaids, miracles, jinn, and other wonders. There is “a coast fringed by red dunes, green arak trees, and the tree that drips blood on the grave of the prophet Hud” and “a region full of trees, streams, with bulbuls and other birds” where “the plants were scented with saffron and the soil with amber.” There is an eagle’s statue that shoots pellets at those who anger the king and a statue that stops ships in their tracks. Each tale has another marvel—or marvels—for the reader to enjoy.

The book itself is a beautiful object, hardcover and with a gold-embossed cover. Each tale has its own title page where the title is written in an elegant cursive script.

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange is recommended for anyone who enjoys fairy tales, The Arabian Nights, and pulp fiction.

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange comes out on February 18, 2015.

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