Passing Strange by Ellen KlagesPassing Strange by Ellen Klages is a lightly fantastic tale of life in San Francisco’s lesbian culture in the 1940s: part wistful romance, part mystery, and with a modern framing story immersed in the culture of geeky collectables. A group of women of very different backgrounds and personalities are thrown together in the way that underground, closeted cultures tend to do. Then one woman’s past and a chance tragedy call for them to combine their talents to save their own.

The Characters

The characters are individual even when suggesting familiar types: the cross-dressing club performer, the elegant and aloof butch, the naive new girl in town. You’ll finish the story certain that you’ve met these women at some point and now you’re sorry you didn’t invite them out for coffee to learn more about their fascinating lives.

The Writing Style

Klages is a mistress of a type of magical realism where the fantastic elements are just barely present at the corner of your eye. The story is a quick and engrossing read, bringing the world-building techniques that are essential to science fiction and fantasy to bear on sketching out the period setting.

The Pros

I love the depth of familiarity Klages has with her setting, both cultural and geographic. I could smell the bookshop, feel the brick walls under my fingers, and hear the music spilling out of the dance club. Her writing is exquisite and concrete at the same time and the story is never predictable even as it concludes in the way you always knew it should.

The Cons

The only very minor quibble I have about the underlying symbolic structure of the story, is that the magical elements are what enable the happy endings (the one in the historic story and in the framing story). I’m left thinking that without the magic everything would have led to tragedy, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling for those of us who live in a world without magic.

The Conclusion

This is a gorgeous story (and here I include the stunningly beautiful cover as well) that will appeal both to fans of fantasy and of a good old-fashioned pulp love story.

Excerpt from Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

She slowly removed the box, setting it so gently onto the table that there was no sound. For the second time, Helen undid the cords that held the corners of the silk and let it fall away.

She was gratified to hear a sudden, inhaled gasp.

A gleaming shallow case of dark, polished wood, about ten by fifteen inches, lay among the folds of silk, its top framing a sheet of thick glass. Inside was a painting—done in vibrant pastel chalks—on a sheet of heavy art paper.

Martin Blake did an almost comic double take. His eyes widened, his mouth hung open. “Is that—?”

“Haskel’s last painting.”

The illustration showed a slender, russet-haired young man in evening clothes, dancing with a woman in a shimmering blue jumpsuit that clung to every curve, her hair a sleek blond waterfall. They gazed into each other’s eyes with obvious joy. The dancers stood in a skylit library. Behind them, a wall of windows revealed the skyline of the city and the expanse of the bay spread out below.

In the bottom right-hand corner was the familiar, angular signature.

“Jesus,” said Martin Blake.

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Bits and Bobs

  • ISBN number: 9780765389527
  • Publisher: Tor.com

Ellen Klages Online

Passing Strange Book Cover Passing Strange
Ellen Klages
Fiction
Tor.com
January 24, 2017
220

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.