Yet I'm hesitant about discussing Cloud & Ashes in public, because it has received some wonderful reviews elsewhere: not just positive reviews from people whose good opinion of value, but reviews which are subtle and perceptive, but reviews which are, in themselves, beautifully expressed, which carry some of the flavour of the book. They talk, with a competence I lack, about the power, the erudition, the poetry of the text.
So I'll talk about the story. Cloud & Ashes has a story, and it's a strong one, a gripping one. It's even, in its own way, a linear one, though the line is not a straight one. Nor is it a tangled one: the construction - and I owe this realisation to rushthatspeaks - is a spiral. My first progression from there was to see it as a snowball, which grows larger as it is rolled through the snow, picking up fragments of leaf and twig as it goes, and incorporating them into itself, layer by layer. But perhaps a better image is the wentletrap, a word which appears in the book describing the windings of a woman's cloth headdress, but which is also (and I learned this from Peter Bennet) a spiral staircase or a seashell. So the story grows from the handful of images in Jack Daw's Pack, its chambers becoming more spacious as it twists upon itself with A Crowd of Bone and finally opens out from these previously published pieces into the new material, a generation on.
I originally read these in all the wrong order, because A Crowd of Bone is online, so it was my first taste of Greer Gilman's writing (outside her LJ). Then came Moonwise, then Jack Daw's Pack. It was a revelation to read them now from the beginning and to see how perfectly the organic structure grows, and how everything fits together (even Moonwise is cunningly stitched into the mythology.
And Cloud & Ashes is a novel about mythology. It depicts a world which, like our own, marks the succession of the seasons, the turning of the year, with ritual, with songs and mummers' play and the taking on of rôles. The dance of the constellations is the dance of the stones in their circle is the dance of the mummers in their play is the fall of the cards of Jack Daw's pack (which is and is not the tarot). But in Cloud, what is enacted is also real. Each year a young woman is chosen to be Ashes, the daughter of the witch goddess Annis: but Ashes is a real person, and, what's more, the woman chosen does not play the part of Ashes, she is - for a certain period - Ashes, and when that period is over, her life may not be unchanged. This is, in itself, an enchantment, and riches enough for a book.
The mythology of Cloud & Ashes is no colourful piece of tourist-friendly folklore. If the year really is divided between the dark sister and the bright, if John Barleycorn must really die for the crops to flourish - well, then it's no pastoral fantasy, but a world of hard labour and poverty, with a mythology to match. The rituals of the year are the figures of the dance the characters tread, but the reader too is coaxed through a sequence of reactions: at first fascinated by the rituals of this entrancing world, then uneasy but accepting the cruelty of the ritual as how things are because they must be, then gradually perceiving that this acceptance means complicity in the unbearable - and only at the dénouement, the end of the dance, realising that the author was ahead of them all the way.
The book is a story; but a book is just words. And according to your taste, the story of Cloud & Ashes is either veiled in the play of words or inherent in it, inseparable from it. It is in the nature of ritual to employ its own traditional and sometimes only half-understood words, and Greer Gilman has an immense vocabulary, as wide as it is deep. Reading her is - among other things - something like solving a crossword puzzle: there is (as there was for me, for example, with wentletrap) the occasional vivid moment of "Oh, I know this one!" And, when you don't know one, the frustration when it reappears until you are forced to track it down - because words, phrases, snatches of song do reappear. Some readers will find this exasperating, in which case this is not the book for them; others will find it as mesmerising as those fragments of favourite songs and poems which worm their way into your memory and can be recited to conjure up not just themselves but all the circumstances and emotions with which we associate them. Each repetition stitches the fabric more richly together, gives the mantra more potency.
Cloud & Ashes isn't a "couldn't put it down" sort of book. I loved it, and it still took me about a month to read it; it's quite long, and very, very rich. After a few pages I'd have to stop and digest what I'd read. I don't think that's a bad thing - indeed, I was in no hurry to reach the end, I didn't want it to be over.