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Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.
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Passing Strange is a bit of an odd duck in the Tor.com novella line up: so far everything I’ve read from them has been very much core genre, and I’ve read most of the line up, at least one installment in each series. Passing Strange is a very different beast, although one still very much in line with the rest of its author’s (fêted) ouevre…

As we all know, being queer was taboo in the 1940s in America, even in liberal bastions like San Francisco, the city to which every black sheep ran; Passing Strange is all about that experience, about being a queer woman in that period – and about different ways of being a queer woman in the period. Klages assembles a small ensemble cast to show us multiple different intersecting oppressions – the Japanese-American Helen Young, dealing with anti-Japanese racism in an America only a few years away from war with Japan; the disinherited upper-class Emily Netterfield, who performs drag; pulp cover-artist Loretta Haskel (misgendered by later ‘experts’ in the field, of course); and more. Each woman sparkles brightly and beautifully with a vivacity that feels something like a Hollywood glamour film; they leap off the page brightly, and even in their quieter, more domestic moments, they have a kind of shine.

It’s beautiful writing and character realisation, and the way that Klages developes the relationships between the women across the course of Passing Strange is slow and very human: friendships formed in a single meeting, a social gathering of Sapphic sistren, out of which comes a tangle of friendships, relationships, and events. Things move quickly and slowly by turn, beautifully developing; Klages writes with a sensitive, emotionally deft hand about exploring one’s own and each other’s feelings in the early days of a relationship, as well as the comfort and familiarity of the latter stages of one. The plot really takes a backstage to the relationship; indeed, the plot is the relationship, really, with a few events that add tangles to it, but even there everything is centred on relationships, mainly that between Haskel and Emily.

Klages isn’t writing history, but she is writing realism; Passing Strange spends a certain amount of time on looking at the effects of the strictures of the day, and what those strictures were. Things like the three-garment test (of whether women were breaking the law by wearing men’s clothing), the police attitude to gay establishments, and general social attitudes; Klages is far from sympathetic to these bigotries, but she is sympathetic to the women who have to deal with them, and there’s a beautiful critique, worked in throughout the narrative, of the way heteronormative society tries to force queers into the closet.

All this history is surrounded by a wonderful frame story of Helen in her old age, in the contemporary world; it’s a bittersweet story, but also pulls cackles from the reader, as Klages ensures people get their comeuppance, as Passing Strange deals out appropriate ends and ensures some rather fun loose ends are tied up – and points out certain modern hypocrisies, to boot. It’s a framing story that really drives home the magical-realist elements of the novel, which are essential to the ending but for the rest of it are just a little extra flavour Klages adds beautifully and, seemingly, purely for the whimsy of it.

Passing Strange is a beautiful, wonderful gem of a story, a lesbian romance that really feels sweet and gentle and happy; Klages has crafted a real joy of a story. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a Diego Rivera cameo, so how can you resist?

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Fearsome Magics ed. Jonathan Strahan

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From sorcerous bridges that link worlds to the simple traditions of country folk; from the mysterious natures of twins to the dangerous powers of obligation and contract. Laden with perils for both the adventurous and the unsuspecting, magic is ultimately a contradiction: endlessly powerful but never without consequence, and rigidly defined by rules of its own making.

Award-winning Jonathan Strahan brings together some of the most exciting and popular writers working in fantasy today to dig into that contradiction, and present you with the strange, the daunting, the mathematical, the unpredictable, the deceptive and above all the fearsome world of magic.
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Fearsome Magics is the second New Solaris Book of Fantasy, following Fearsome Journeys. It’s a significantly more varied volume, themed around magic in stories, and Strahan has brought stories from a variety of different milieus to bear on the theme.

Fearsome Magics is a much broader anthology but also a rather less diverse one; eight of the fourteen authors are women, although every author is white. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a wide variety of settings here; Strahan has selected stories that invoke the American heartland, secondary worlds, and past times of stage magic. This is an anthology whose scope includes the magic-permeated setting of K J Parker’s ‘Safe House’, a brilliantly told story whose twist is obvious in retrospect and neatly set up, albeit perhaps with a little too much pleasure taken in the glib voice of its narrator; and Ellen Klages’ magicless setting (stage magic aside) in ‘Hey, Presto!’, a beautiful family tale of a father and daughter building a relationship around dedication and effort. The scope of those two really sums up the breadth of the anthology; from the epic creation of a secondary world with history, politics, cultural differences and more, to the telling of a tale in what is very reminiscent of late-Victorian England; from a male agent sent on a covert mission because of his magical prowess to a studious young girl reconnecting with her father; from a story that is glib, funny and wry to a story that is heartfelt and beautiful.

Perhaps the best story in the collection is the least concerned with magic; Isobelle Carmody’s ‘Grigori’s Solution’ is a very quiet apocalypse story, in which a mathematical formula has brought about the end of the universe. Told from the first-person perspective of a journalist, the story is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in the chaos caused by the end of the world and the interest in the consequences of that, but whereas Vonnegut is also interested in what leads up to that, Carmody is more interested in the quiet individual stories, the personal responses to the end of the world; she takes the reader through the five stages of grief for the world as it slowly vanishes into the blackness, without ever really being interested in how it has happened or what caused it. The use of a single viewpoint telling the stories of many different people works brilliantly, and the conceit of a reporter writing an article that will never be read is extremely well carried off.

The other stand-out stories are about death, in various ways; ‘Aberration’ is Genevieve Valentine’s take on immortality and time-travel, and a painful look at what being rootless and witnessing vast amounts of death would mean. It’s a strange, weird story partially told in second-person glimpses; and is about roots, and homes, and the importance of a full stop at the end of a sentence. ‘Ice in the Bedroom’, on the other hand, is a very personal look at the other side; the griever left behind by the deceased, and the process of grief. Making concrete the process of grieving is an interesting technique, and Shearman’s blurring of the lines between dream and reality is incredibly well done and profoundly moving.

Unfortunately, most of the stories aren’t up to that standard. Tony Ballantyne’s ‘Dream London Hospital’, for instance, is a messy story, without clear framework or plot; while perhaps making more sense in the context of his novel Dream London, shorn of that Ballantyne has written a sort of strange, impossible half-world of dreams and, like listening to the dreams of others people, reading about them tends not to make much sense; this story certainly doesn’t buck that trend.

In a differently messy way, Kaaron Warren’s ‘The Nursery Corner’ is a story that really only needs a few pages to be told, but is instead drawn out in an attempt to add extra depth and pathos in an entirely unsuccessful way; it takes what would be a creepy horror concept and renders it overdone. Christopher Rowe’s ‘The Dun Letter’, meanwhile, opens the collection on a fairytale-changeling story; unfortunately, it’s one that can’t decide what it wants to be, quite, between a story of a girl abandoned and looking after her grandmother and a mockery of typical portal fantasy, and ends up somewhere in between, being neither and achieving very little.

After the incredibly high standards of Fearsome Journeys, I expected Fearsome Magics to continue the strong showing; unfortunately, Strahan’s second foray into the New Solaris Books of Fantasy simply doesn’t live up to the standards set by the first, despite some outstanding stories.

Fearsome Journeys ed. Jonathan Strahan

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How do you encompass all the worlds of the imagination? Within fantasy’s scope lies every possible impossibility, from deagons to spirits, from magic to gods, and from the unliving to the undying.

In Fearsome Journeys, master anthologist Jonathan Strahan sets out on a quest to find the very limits of the unlimited, collecting twelve brand new stories by some of the most popular and exciting names in epic fantasy from around the world.
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Fearsome Journeys is subtitled as the New Solaris Book of Fantasy; Jonathan Strahan has collected some of the most storied names in fantasy together and taken short stories from them, all under the broad rubric of “epic fantasy”. Unfortunately, Strahan’s model of epic fantasy is quite a narrow one here; while all the stories have differences in tone, they all fall under a broadly swords-and-sorcery model, set in secondary worlds, but without messing with the same basic formula.

On the positive side, though, they come from a variety of authors; half the contributors to this anthology are women, although only one is a person of colour. That shows in the stories contributed to Fearsome Journeys; they are a lot better than much epic fantasy at ensuring they feature rounded, interesting female characters treated on the same level as the male characters, some stories centred on women and some on men. This is most clear in Kate Elliott’s ‘Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine’, an amazing story whose protagonist is a widow with grown children, which avoids the standard violent solutions of epic fantasy in favour of politics, frienships and humanity. It’s a quiet little story but also a wide-ranging one, about heirarchies, status, power and how power can be used; an absolutely outstanding contribution to the collection.

Similarly, Ellen Klages’ ‘Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl’ focuses its attentions on a would-be thief and a tavern-running young woman. The former is not a hero, but rather a clumsy protagonist, while the latter, and her girlfriend, are what this story treats as heroes; not necessarily heroic per se, but at least heroised. The story is somewhere between a shaggy dog tale and a heist caper turned around on the would-be heister; Klages manages the characters well, and keeps her tricks concealed until she deploys them at exactly the right moment. Klages gets the beats exactly right to keep this a light and humourous story; the occasionally lewd humour is funny and well played, and doesn’t remove the fact that there are some interesting sociopolitical discussions going on in this little piece.

At the other end of the spectrum is Daniel Abraham’s ‘High King Dreaming’; this really is traditional fate-of-nations epic fantasy fare, but at the same time, it has an intelligent and brilliant twist. The High King of the title is Arthurian in status, having united a nation and having been prophesied to return in that nation’s time of greatest need; the story is told from the point of his death, as we watch him watching his funeral. Abraham plays with time, moving backwards and forwards to create a story that is about the demands on a ruler, the imperatives on a parent, and the compromises required by politics; he is unsubtle in talking about big themes and large ideas, in interesting ways.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an entirely strong collection. ‘Spirits of Salt: Tales of the Coral Heart’ isn’t one of Jeffrey Ford’s stronger stories; it’s long, slow, and fails to really get anywhere, while trying to be about power and violence. Instead, the story meanders, without any meaningful characters or resolution; it’s frustrating and drawn out, to the point that the reader is frustrated and thrown out of the story. The ideas behind the story could be quite well-written but turn out to actually be glib and trite, with the attempted twists oversimplified. Similarly, Saladin Ahmed’s ‘Amethyst, Shadow and Light’ has a lot of potential, and some fascinating elements in terms of character interaction, but in the end is a predictable story that fails to really engage with its subject-matter; the morality is simplistic and the approach to plot incredibly straightforward.

Fearsome Journeys is a fascinating snapshot of epic fantasy today; it avoids the worst of the worst, the excesses and incredible length of Brandon Sanderson and the racism of Peter V Brett, but does have a mix of the serious and the humourous, the small scale and the grand, the well-written and the poorly accomplished. Jonathan Strahan is an excellent anthologist, and Fearsome Journeys is one of the better anthologies out there; almost entirely strong, moderately diverse, and worth reading.

In the House of the Seven Librarians by Ellen Klages

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When an old Carnegie library is closed, its seven librarians refuse to abandon their home. They lock the doors, and the forest grows around them like a cloak, sheltering them from the rest of the world. But their lives are changed when a book of fairy tales is found in the Book Drop, very, very overdue. The payment? A first-born child.

In the House of the Seven Librarians is a timeless tale for anyone who spent a childhood in the refuge of the public library, or who believes that a world full of books is a magical place.
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In a time of library closures, of books being thrown out by the crateful, a paean to the grand public edifices of yesteryear feels rather appropriate; and Klages’ novella about the magic of libraries is just such…

In the House of the Seven Librarians is a beautiful story of exploration, discovery, books, and the silent magic of libraries. The seven librarians, with personalities defined by the appropriate personality for their job, can seem less like people and more like emanations out of L-Space of the ur-librarians, the Children’s Librarian especially; the magically appearing books and supplies, generated by the library, are wonderful, especially their selection – no flashes in the pan, so no Dan Brown, but Rowling obviously makes an appearance. At times, the novella feels like it’s taking its cues from Sleeping Beauty and the fairies failing to look after Snow; they’re trying their best and doing it from good motives, but really don’t understand children.

The magic of books is really the focus here, and how books can help one grow. In the House of the Seven Librarians is an imagined childhood, but one based on reality; based on the child who consumes books as if they were the force of life itself, on the omnivorous and voracious reader. Discovering the world through books is, of course, a time-honoured tradition, one which exploded in the Victorian era with the end of the Grand Tour and its replacement with reading memoirs of the tours of others, Nathaniel Hawthorne being a prime purveyor of such. E. M. Forster, in The Machine Stops, of course took this to its logical conclusion; but Klages is also writing about the idea of vicarious experiences and their comparative value to “real”, that is, lived, experiences. It’s an interesting piece of work, in that regard, given the love it has for the vicarious but also the final conclusion In the House of the Seven Librarians comes to.

This is only a short work, but it’s a beautiful, intelligent, and rather sweet one. In the House of the Seven Librarians is a love-letter to libraries, and anyone devaluing them should be sent a copy.

Time Gypsy by Ellen Klages

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A modern post-doctoral physicist gets the opportunity of a lifetime: to travel backward in time and meet her heroine, Dr. Sara Baxter Clarke. But there is something else that Carol McCullough never could have expected in the shockingly oppressive world of 1956: Love. Time Gypsy is a journey into the past where time travel, academic rivalry, queer history, and romance intersect. It’s where the scientists are women and have hearts as well as brains. Funny, sweet, and brave, this is an adventure the reader will never forget.
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Academia, with its rivalry, backbiting, status-seeking, ambition, obscure and complex politics, rules and regulations, oversized egos and undermatured personalities, is rarely a setting for speculative fiction; Kushner & Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings and Asimov’s Foundation are the obvious counterexamples, and now Time Gypsy can join them. A brief novella, but one in which Klages manages to pack an awful lot…

Time Gypsy is set in both 1995 and 1965. McCullough, our protagonist, is summoned by her department head to be sent back in time to retrieve the secrets to stable time travel from a scientist who disappeared the day before presenting it. As a bare-bones summary this is very sparse, but between McCullough’s relationship with Clarke that Klages portrays beautifully, especially McCullough’s knowledge of its impending failure, and the deadline to return to 1995 with the secrets to stable time travel, there is not only suspense but also a good deal of action in this romance.

Time Gypsy actively and explicitly includes the official harassment and persecution of homosexuals in the 1960s, and its semi-acceptance in the 1990s. The contrats between the two timelines, especially but not only in terms of discrimination – against people of colour, against women, against homosexuals – are beautifully and evocatively drawn, from the necessity of a beard to the different styles of dress and fashion. Klages sets up her world vividly in order to paint her vivid characters onto that backdrop; each lends to and takes life from the other in a wonderfully symbiotic feedback loop in this writing.

Really though, this is about the romance, which is sweet, and the academia, which is shown in all its bizarre glory. Klages, in Time Gypsy, paints composite portraits of a number of the different types of academics one comes across, and does so without descending into pastiche or charicature; instead, she makes them real, makes them human, as much by seeing their motives as by understanding their flaws, something often left aside. This is a university I feel familiar with despite being in a different country, faculty and time period to mine, and that verissimilitude is truly impressive.

For a short piece, Time Gypsy packs an awful lot of punch; Klages really does conjure up the feel of a love affair, the change in the air in the 1960s, and the bizarre world of academia. A really nice little chapbook here.

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