Tuesday Terror! The Shadow Tree by Angela Slatter

sourdoughThe teller of tales…


I first came across Angela Slatter as one of the contributors to Stephen Jones’ great anthology Fearie Tales and was highly impressed both by her use of language and her story-telling skills. So I acquired her own short story collection Sourdough and Other Stories. The stories in the book are all in the style of traditional fairy tales – in fact some of them refer explicitly to well-known tales, such as Rapunzel. Whether writing an original story or deriving an original angle on a traditional one, there’s a consistency of approach and location that means that these stories work as individual tales but also gradually build together to create a linked world with recurring themes. I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so far but will review the full collection once I finish it. Meantime I have selected the first one as this week’s…


Baldur is fourteen and equals his sister in unpleasantness, occasionally surpassing her. Platinum blonde hair and violet-blue eyes, they are shining, flawed metal, the worst that a royal house can offer: cruel, spiteful, selfish, beautiful, utterly confident of their position in life.

The Shadow Tree tells the tale of Ella, servant to the King and Queen and entrusted with the care of their two deeply unpleasant and cruel children. The story is told to us by Ella herself, so we are immediately aware that Ella is much more than a simple servant – she has a mysterious past and is living as an exile from her home. She is a skilled maker of potions and uses these to manipulate the family so that she has become almost indispensable to each of them in different ways. To the Queen she is someone to confide in; to the King she is a bedmate when the Queen is indisposed. And to the children she is a storyteller, and tonight she will tell them the story of the shadow tree…

‘Where is your milk? Have you had your milk?’ They shake their heads and I take the jug of lukewarm liquid from the bedside stand and pour each a cup, dripping in mandrake juice from the vial in my pocket. Not enough to kill, but enough to make them sleepy and suggestible. They drink it down as I settle back in my spot.

As with all of Slatter’s stories (at least the few I’ve read so far), this is a dark tale. The use of the first-person, the moral ambiguity of the narrator and the deliberate obscuring of the lines between ‘woman’ and ‘witch’ seem to be common themes throughout the collection. In this tale, we come to know that Ella has visited other realms and will do so again in the future. She has a task that she must fulfil if she wishes to be allowed to return to her father’s land. And that task is to judge the characters of the children of the Kings of the realms and then to decide their fate. Ella is cold, chillingly single-minded and dedicated to her task. And she has good reason to have judged these cruel children harshly.

I tell him it is best found in moonlight, when it will gleam like an angel’s wings and, lo and behold, tonight is a full moon. I will not take them there, I tell them, and in this I am adamant. They will, I know, go without me. I tuck them into their beds, make them swear they will not go into the woods tonight and look for the tree. They promise me with lying lips. They will stray, like so many before them, and find the shadow tree…

Angela Slatter
Angela Slatter

The thing I love about Slatter, apart from just the sheer quality and imagination of the stories, is the way she puts in a little phrase or twist almost in passing that can darken the whole story or give insight into a character. In this one, as Ella sends the children to the shadow tree, we suddenly discover that their mother has seen the fateful moment…and chosen not to intervene. A sentence or two and the story is plunged into something unexpected and deeply disturbing. Whether original or derived, each story has that same quality of almost casual cruelty that pervades the original fairy tales. And yet the stories are emotional – the women, the witches, may not always be good but they are real people who love, hate, and feel anger and hurt. And this story is a fine start to what’s shaping up to be an excellent collection.

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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