Ellen Klages, Passing Strange, St Martin's Press, 2017.
I'm pretty sure there are many readers of this blog who will look at the cover of Passing Strange with raised eyebrows, wondering how come I'm reviewing a novella that, quite evidently, features heavily a romance, since romance isn't my cup of tea at all.
Let's face it: I'd never have read Passing Strange had it not ended up on the SCKA shortlist. And my initial reaction was "Meh". It took some conversation with fellow readers of the SCKA to go past my disinterest to consider the objective qualities of this fantasy story, which, in the end, make it a novella well worth reviewing.
The story begins as Helen Young, a dying old woman, goes to sell a famous artwork by Haskell, a mysterious artist from the 1940s who was well known in some specialised circles for creating covers for pulp genre magazines. The story soon takes us back to the 1940s where we find out that Helen was a friend of Haskell and of a small group of lesbians in San Francisco at a time when discriminatory laws still existed.
"All right," will you tell me, "But where is the fantasy aspect in there?"
Quite honestly, the fantasy aspect isn't in your face at all. It is in passing but it is beautifully creative. There's for instance, the ability to fold space as if an origami folding, though it may be, after all, science even if we don't have the science yet to explain how it happens. There's also a hint at mirror universes, and maybe our characters already are in a mirror universe.
The city of San Francisco itself takes on hints of a magical city, through the fair or the theme of looking like, dressing, and being, in a game of mirrors reflecting themselves with slight distortions, or in going behind the curtain.
But, as I said, if you come to Passing Strange for the fantasy, you may end up disappointed, because even if it's done beautifully, it is as light as a pastel colour.
The bulk of Passing Strange is the love story between two women in a time when it was prohibited to love and be if you weren't cis het. The story can even be considered as a historical novella, as Klages takes us to explore the discriminations the lesbian, queer and trans community faced at the time, even in a city such as San Francisco: harassed by the police, considered a freak show by visiting people who were looking for some louche and risqué tourist attraction, having to hide who they were all the time.
That theme is also present in the opening and closing chapters, set in the present, with a dig at the SFF community, the snobbishness of some of us, the "let's assume everyone's a white cis het male" attitude or even the greed of some of us.
If, like me, you're not interested in romance stories, the bulk of the novella will pass you by. But persevere to the end, because after you'll have closed it for the last time, beyond the love story, you'll realise the intricate writing and world building that is there.
And, if you are into romance stories, then don't think twice and read Passing Strange.
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