I don't like fantasy novels, but I try, every so often, to give them a fair shake. My last great attempt was Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I was on vacation, and I made it to about page 300 when I realized that, plot-wise, nothing was going to happen, and my vacation was going to be spent waiting in vain for this hefty book to heat up in some way—sex, violence, please.

I tried again, with Clarke's new short-story collection, and I discarded this book eight times, quitting each story in a petit mort of book abandonment. In one, I made it so far as the first sentence: "This story is set in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess in Stardust." (Precisely who Ms. Clarke had to bribe to get Bloomsbury to publish her fan fiction remains undisclosed.) Why is the fantasy family tree a straight line from that old stick-in-the-mud Tolkien? When are any of these people going to allow, or even invite, a slight eye roll at the word faerie? Not today, not this handsome volume, which is only for the most ardent of dewy wood nymphs, or whatever fantasy buffs call themselves.