COMET WEATHER by Liz Williams (Book Review)
“And those vast distant suns were obviously not the same as the calm-faced women with their jewels and their sprigs of herbs who paraded through the house, just as the moon was not the same as the dappled wooden horse who galloped over the spare room floor, and yet, somehow, they were the same: their appearance in the minds of men forming something other, something real. Microcosm and macrocosm: a system of correspondences, star and jewel and flower; number and planet and colour.”
Liz Williams’ Comet Weather (2020) is exactly the book I needed to read right now. It is a beautifully written fantasy novel, drawing on British folklore but anchored firmly in the real world of day to day life as it is lived. Drawing from the same well as such Fantasy classics as Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1973) and Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (1973), Comet Weather finds the magic buried in the land around us, through generations of folk stories and fairy tales. It is also a beautiful meditation on family relationships and growing older. Charming, engaging, and told with an admirable lightness of touch that belies the undercurrents of darkness running throughout, Comet Weather is just the tonic to the strange times we find ourselves in.
Comet Weather is the story of the four Fallow sisters, Bee, Stella, Serena and Luna, who went their separate ways following the disappearance of their mother Alys a year ago, but now find themselves drawn back to their family home of Mooncote in Somerset. Lerninsky’s comet will soon be returning to the skies after thousands of years, and cryptic advice from ghosts and stars suggests that Alys may be returning. However other people and other presences find themselves drawn to Mooncote, some of them with sinister intent, not least Dara and Tam Stare, the former having designs on more than just Serena’s fickle boyfriend. The sisters must work together to bring back their mother and defeat their new enemies.
Comet Weather is set in the recognisable world of Somerset and London, with the magical and fantastical elements weaved seamlessly into the narrative. This is a large part of what makes the book so wonderful, the way in which the fantastic encroaches on recognisable, every-day life. Thus the magical elements are always running underneath, but very subtly creep up on the reader, so that one entirely believes in this house visited by the spirits of the Behenian stars and Elizabethan ghosts, and in a Britain where one can travel the lych paths to different realities. Williams’ writing is glorious, her ability to evoke a setting and inflect it with just the right balance of the familiar and the uncanny makes this book a delightful read. But just as crucial to making the novel work is her way with characters. Bee, Serena, Stella and Luna are believable as fey sisters and witches because they are so believable as people. Each Fallow sister is well drawn and distinctive, much conveyed by the way they interact with each other rather than clunkily explained. Bee, the eldest, is the sensible one who has stayed at Mooncote to look after the house. Serena is a fashion designer living in London, a single mother who is having doubts about her musician boyfriend Ben’s fidelity. Stella is a DJ who swore never to return to Mooncote after falling out with Bee over Alys’ disappearance. Luna is the youngest and most adventurous, who has gone travelling the route of the horse fairs across Britain with her boyfriend Sam in the hopes of finding a trace of Alys. The four estranged sisters are at different stages of their lives with different problems, many of them rooted in the quotidian, and the resonances of these make them feel like real people with lived lives, which makes us all the more invested when the supernatural threats arrive.
Comet Weather is in many ways a coming of age novel, with the difference that rather than being teenagers facing teenage problems of identity and finding one’s place in the world, the characters are a little bit older, late twenties to mid thirties. The novel is about the Fallow sisters navigating their place in the world now that their mother is out of the picture, but in terms of the women’s identities as sisters, mothers, lovers and friends, the new responsibilities to themselves and to others these identities bring; adult concerns for adult characters. It makes a refreshing change to see a story from this perspective. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between the four sisters. Bee, Serena, Stella and Luna have all been estranged due to the trauma of their mother’s disappearance, but over the course of the novel they learn that the family ties that bind them are stronger than they realised, that they have more in common with each other despite their different perspectives, and that they still care deeply for each other.
The novel throughout is steeped in British folklore, both overt and subtle. Over the course of Comet Weather, the Fallow sisters fully come into their powers. The novel takes us on an exhilarating ride across Britain’s standing stones, lych paths and ancient Tors, drawing from a rich well of mythology, folklore and fairy tale. Comet Weather shows us how this mythology forms the bones of the land, informs the traditions and shape of the country, and reimbues the familiar with a deep sense of wonder and magic. As such it is a gorgeous example of what Fantasy does best, what keeps us returning to the genre and these stories.