Historical fiction is almost always fascinating to me. If that fiction also happens to have a touch of magic to it, even better. That’s exactly what I got when I decided to pick up Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange.
Passing Strange (2017)
Written by: Ellen Klages
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 215 (Trade paperback)
Publisher: Tor.com/Tom Doherty Associates
Why I chose it: Honestly? I saw a blurb on Tor.com’s social media. This is a recent addition to Tor.com’s excellent novella collection. I have read quite a few of these novellas and felt safe buying this on a whim. I was not disappointed.
There will be no spoilers.
This novella is a short, lovely glimpse into a few weeks of whirlwind romance during the World’s Fair at San Francisco. The story’s more magical realism than it is outright fantasy. There are some moments of outright magic, but largely, the story focuses on the brief, seemingly doomed romance between two women who find each other nearly by accident. It’s a short, lovely, intense romance before the story carries the characters away.
The fate of our two main heroines was a little ambiguous, but it worked well for this story. You want so badly for the two of them to have found their way to happiness. Klages leaves the readers to wonder and decide for themselves what happened. It works beautifully.
I must address the often brutal treatment that gay and non-binary women were often subjected to during the era in which this story takes place and offer a trigger warning (for domestic abuse and physical violence, primarily). Klages has clearly done her research on the subject and brings it unflinchingly to life. In the story, many of these women gather at Mona’s Club 440, which is a known gathering space for lesbians of the era. The club was real; Klages portrays it beautifully here. In the novella, the police know this place for the haven that it is, and take any opportunity to heap abuse on the women who frequent the establishment. Something called the “three garment test,” which states that a woman must have on at least three pieces of women’s clothing at all times in public, is used to molest or even assault women who refuse to conform to standard gender norms of the day. One minor character is hauled off to jail for failing the three garment test.
In Conclusion: I purchased this novella on a whim. That beautiful cover was what drew me in. I was delighted with the story and would have liked to spend more time with these characters. Perhaps someday, Klages will revisit them. One can only hope.