PASSING STRANGE by Ellen Klages: Patreon Review

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. (Tor.com Publishing, January 2017.  Ebook $2.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8951-0. Cover art by Gregory Manchess. Cover design by Christine Foltzer. )

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, i’ faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man.

Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Wow.

Let’s start with that: wow. Let’s end with it too, because Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange lives up to the intriguing and cryptic promise of its matter-of-fact opening line with verve and vigour and an unexpected generosity and grace.

That first line is: “On the last Monday of her life, Helen Young returned from the doctor’s and made herself a cup of tea.”

Passing Strange isn’t about Helen Young as such, either now at the age of one hundred or seventy-five years earlier, in 1940, when she’s a young Asian-American lawyer making a living through dancing for tourists in San Francisco’s Chinatown — but she’s central to the story in more ways than one.

The emotional core of the story is a circle of women in 1940s San Francisco (although it is bookended by the acts of 100-year-old Helen). Their romantic and carnal inclinations include other women, and in 1940, San Francisco is one place where they can live and love in (relative) freedom, despite the difficulties of police harassment, moral codes, and the fact that the bars where they can be out in public are only allowed to operate because tourists come there to be titillated.

And the core of that story is the love between Loretta Haskel and Emily Netterfield.

Haskel, an artist who does covers for pulp magazines, encounters Emily Netterfield one evening in the company of Franny Travers and her circle, which includes Helen. Franny is an intellectual and something of a magician, and a vein of the wondrous and the strange runs through the heart of Passing Strange — to which I shall return momentarily.

Emily Netterfield fled an old and wealthy East Coast family to avoid repercussions for being caught in flagrante delicto with a girl. Now Emily performs as the dapper, masculine “Spike” at Mona’s, a club for women who like other women. When circumstances and mutual attraction send Emily home from the club with Haskel, the two quickly fall into a deep and meaningful relationship, but their fragile happiness is abruptly threatened when Haskel’s estranged husband returns from sea, angry and demanding money. To preserve their happiness, to write themselves into a different story, Emily consents when Haskel suggests they try magic to take themselves away…

Klages draws San Francisco in 1940 in vivid colours and subtle shades. The sense of place in this story is a vital piece of what makes it work. Here is a real city, vibrant and bustling: and here are its subaltern communities, struggling for acknowledgement as equally human. Passing Strange isn’t a tragedy. Its register remains defiantly hopeful, stubbornly determined about the possibilities for joy and happiness even as it acknowledges that shit happens and sometimes shit really sucks. It centres on a community of women who care about each other and show up for each other, on kindness and the willingness to help each other out, on friendship and — I repeat this word, because it feels so central — on community. On chosen family.

Its focus on women and women’s relationships with each other as family, as well as its 20th-century historical setting and its style, reminds me of Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Like Valentine’s novel, it feels like a modern fairy-story — though unlike Valentine, Klages here is not drawing directly on the bones of an existing fable. But they share a sense of intimacy, as well characters who are caught between hard places because systems of power are indifferent or hostile to their independent happiness.

And there’s that vein of magic running through it, and the polyvalent implications of the title. Passing: passing for straight, a passing moment, surpassing, passing by. Strange and all the nuances of that word. Passing Strange is passing strange, indeed, and more than passing beautiful: elegantly constructed, elegiac, and hopeful in the face of difficult things.

This is a gorgeous short novel. I came to it vaguely suspicious of its premises, and finished by loving it unreservedly. It’s amazing. Read it.

Seriously: wow.


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THE DROWNING EYES by Emily Foster: Patreon-supported review

The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster
Tor.com Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4668-9193-7, 134pp, E-book, USD$2.99/CAN$2.99. January 2016. Cover art by Cynthia Sheppard.

The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster is one of Tor.com Publishing’s January 2016 novella offerings. It caught my eye for its amazingly striking cover (seriously, look at how gorgeous that is, I mean, look at that thing), and then Carl Engle-Laird mentioned on Twitter that it had a) ships, b) raiders, c) magic, and d) queer women. I fairly leapt at the opportunity to read an ARC.

Dragon Ships are raiding up and down the islands. They have attacked the Windspeakers’ temple at Tash and taken an important icon. This icon is the centre of the Windspeakers’ abilities to cooperate, and to divert the vast amounts of damage that can be done by a young Windspeaker who hasn’t yet been connected to the icon, and through it, to the other Windspeakers. Shina is the only survivor from the attack at Tash, and she’s determined to stop the Dragon Ships and get the icon back.

Tazir’s the captain of a fishing boat that sometimes carries passengers. She’s seen her share of storms and dangers, but she’s got no respect for Windspeakers who go to the temples — why would you let anyone cut out your eyes and let them tell you what to do with your power? And she’s not too inclined to risk her ship or her neck for anyone. But when Shina shows up masquerading as a rich girl (with money to spend) and wants passage, she’s willing to take the money and not ask too many questions. At least not until Shina brings a storm up from her belly and sets it on the Dragon Ships.

Not once, but twice.

The Drowning Eyes is not, alas, greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, it has some pretty great parts. The prose is brisk, tending to elegant at times; the dialogue is vivid and engaging:

“Bad things happen every damn day of my life!” Tazir snapped. “But me and Kodin and the kid down there, we’re prepared when they fucking happen!”

“Oh, so you like Shina now?”

“Yeah,” Tazir said. “I have a tendency to like people who make themselves fucking useful.”

The characters, now. The characterisation here is good damn — or the characters are of a kind that I’m primed to empathise with. They’re compelling. I wanted to see more of Shina, young and desperate, somewhat sheltered, but firm in her determination to recover the idol — a determination only reaffirmed when one of her storms inflicts unintentional destruction. Tazir, irritable, mercenary, absolutely sure of herself — and not always right, as we see from her relationships with her mate, Kodin, and her quartermaster and lover, Chaqal. The worldbuilding is lightly-drawn but fascinating: Windspeakers who can alter the weather, an economy based around sea-transport between islands, the impression of a wider world just visible on the edges of the narrative. (And a BELIEVABLE SHIP: the technical sailorly details feel right.)

But the narrative itself is uneven, oddly balanced. Perhaps it’s that I haven’t read a lot at novella-length, but it feels as though some important things are elided or passed over too lightly. Smash a jar and swallow some storms! Cool, okay. Jump overboard to retrieve an icon somewhere on the bottom of three to ten fathoms of water! …And then — hey waitaminute — we next meet our characters in the final chapter, some years later. Shina is a Windspeaker, long returned to a temple: Tazir is older and crankier, split up with her lover and on the verge of being abandoned by her crew.

I don’t feel the story ends so much as stops: none of the characters have emotional arcs that resolve to my satisfaction. I don’t feel that glorious sensation of stand back, thematic argument being made here, when you might not recognise all the argument but you feel it’s there. When you feel it resonate.

I had higher expectations than perhaps I ought. The Drowning Eyes is a fun quick read, and I don’t regret reading it one whit. (And the cover is still one of the shiniest covers I’ve ever seen.) But it didn’t carry me off into raptures with its excellence — and that makes me more disappointed than the novella deserves.

Good read, though. Still recommend it.


This review comes to you thanks to the generous support of my Patreon backers.

Recently arrived review copies

So I wrote an email chasing some of these (because I am supposed to review some of them for deadlines) only to find them arriving the next day. EMBARRASS ME POST WHY DON’T YOU.

Four here.

Four here.

That’s Cassandra Rose Clarke’s OUR LADY OF THE ICE (Saga Press), Laura Anne Gilman’s SILVER ON THE ROAD (Saga Press), Kai Ashante Wilson’s SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS (Tor.com Publishing), and Carrie Vaughn’s KITTY SAVES THE WORLD (Tor Books).

Two here.

Two here.

And this is Stephanie Saulter’s REGENERATION (Jo Fletcher Books) and Jay Posey’s DAWNBREAKER (Angry Robot). Although I don’t know why anyone would send me the third book in a trilogy where I haven’t ever seen the first two… still, it has a pretty cover?