While Joan Aiken’s novels typically receive the lion’s share of recognition and recommendations, I have always preferred her short stories for, while one can guess how her novels will end, one can never be certain what will happen in a Joan Aiken short story.
The only reliably predictible elements in a Joan Aiken short story are that the most mundane details will turn out to be magical, while the fantastic will be treated with the most blasé of attitudes.
The Armitage family stories follow the magical adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Armitage and their children, Mark, Harriet and, later on, Milo, and exemplify Aiken’s topsy-turvy treatment of the magical and the mundane, though probably never so succinctly as in the following exchange from the story “Yes, But Today Is Tuesday”:
It began at breakfast time, when Mark came into the dining room and announced that there was a unicorn in the garden.
“Nonsense,” said his father. “Today is Tuesday.”
Aiken wrote the Armitage family stories over the entire span of her career, but The Serial Garden, published by Big Mouth House (Small Beer Press’s new imprint for readers of all ages), is the first time all the stories have been collected into one volume. There are twenty-four stories, including four stories never published before. In addition, there are two introductions, one by Garth Nix and another by Joan Aiken’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, which provide biographical notes on Joan Aiken’s life and writing.
Some of the stories included are “Prelude,” which explains why it is that “Odd things frequently happened to the Armitages”; “Broomsticks and Sardines,” in which Mr. Armitage finds out about some of the interesting lessons Mark and Harriet are learning at their village school; “The Frozen Cuckoo,” in which the Armitage house is requisitioned to make a seminary for young magicians, and “Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home,” in which Mrs. Armitage’s involvement in a charity event to raise funds for “distressed old fairy ladies” gets completely out of hand.
One of the things I have always loved about Aiken’s stories is her ability to create the most unnerving villainnesses, whether it is the moonlady in the dreamy fairytale “The Land of Trees and Heroes,” or the coldly smiling businesswoman of “The Quince Tree.” The magical beings at work in “Kitty Snickersnee” never quite manifest, but their influence is definitely felt, and it is a cold inhuman kind of magic which contributes to one of Aiken’s spookier stories.
Aiken could also create stories of romance, as in the title story “The Serial Garden,” in which Mark discovers a magical garden complete with a princess waiting for her lost love. Aiken’s ability to paint a picture of a world where the everyday concerns were balanced with the magical is particularly vivid in this story, as in the following dialogue between Mark and the princess:
“I say!” Mark was full of admiration. “Can you do spells as well as being a princess?”
She drew herself up. “Naturally! At the court of Saxe-Hoffenpoffen, where I was educated, all princesses were taught a little magic, not so much as to be vulgar, just enough to get out of social difficulties.”
One of the ingredients which add such a sense of playful wit to Aiken’s stories — and which make them so worth rereading — is her genius for wordplay, and this is perhaps most obvious in the fabulous names she gives characters, such as Miss Hooting, Mrs. Mildew, Admiral Lycanthrope, and Lady Nightwood. The title of “The Serial Garden” itself is a play on words, and it is the intelligence and the cleverness of Aiken’s prose which make these stories so suitable for readers of any age.
With the publication of The Serial Collection readers of all ages have the opportunity to enjoy some of the best writing by one of the most superb and timeless fantasy writers.
Order The Serial Garden from Small Beer Press here. One can also go to this Web site to download a free story, “Don’t Go Fishing on Witches’ Day.”
(Big Mouth House, 2008)