Shelf Care: Enchanting fairy tales in Joanne M. Harris' Honeycomb

Honeycomb is constructed from short stories author Joanne M. Harris began telling some years ago on Twitter. PHOTOS: GOLLANCZ


By Joanne M. Harris, illustrated by Charles Vess
Fantasy/Gollancz/2021/Hardcover/420 pages/$54.94/Available here

"There is a story the bees used to tell, which makes it hard to disbelieve." So begins this book of 100 gossamer tales, which flit through fairy realms.

Anglo-French author Harris is best known for her novel Chocolat (1999), but has in recent years plumbed a rich vein of mythology and folklore, from Norse legends in The Gospel Of Loki (2014) to Orfeia (2020), which gender-bends the Greek tale of Orpheus.

Honeycomb is constructed from short stories she began telling some years ago on Twitter.

In content and cadence, they evoke the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, as well as the Child Ballads anthologised by 19th-century folklorist Francis James Child.

Several are connected, while others are standalone, but she stacks them all neatly together like the cells of the title.

They are exquisitely illustrated by Vess, an award-winning artist renowned for his work with the likes of writers Neil Gaiman as well as DC and Marvel comics.

In these tales are cloaks of bees, ships of silk and starlight and a train of the dead that hurtles endlessly among all the stations of the worlds. A key figure whose story threads through the tales is the Lacewing King of the Silken Folk, who rules over all the insects of the world.

He begins as a callow, cruel sovereign who gradually mellows as he battles nemeses such as the Spider Queen and the Harlequin, and acquires descendants like the Barefoot Princess, his part-human granddaughter.

As with the Child Ballads, there are dark elements to most of these stories - caged birds, stolen children, people getting their eyes plucked out and so on.

Harris breaks no new ground with Honeycomb, but it shows off her knack for weaving compact spells.

They are best savoured a few at a time - a handful will supply enough magic for an afternoon's enchantment.

  • Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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