Thursday, February 2, 2017

Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages

[Tor Novella]
★★★☆☆ Honorable Mention

(Historical Fantasy) In San Francisco in 2015, an old Japanese woman spends her last days dealing with mysterious unfinished business involving the 1940 disappearance of a friend who illustrated pulp magazines. (38,685 words; Time: 2h:08m)

Recommended By: Nebula+2 Locus+2

This is historical fiction/women's fiction with a secondary romance and some fantasy in it. See related articles on

"," by (edited by Jonathan Strahan), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2017.238 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: Obviously the greatest strength of this work is the lavishly detailed description of the hidden lesbian community of pre-World War II San Francisco. It’s a great reminder that just because they had it better than 95% of the lesbians in the country doesn’t mean they had it easy. Not until the 1970s did that sort of police persecution of gays and lesbians begin to stop.

In terms of plot, we learn why Helen had to dispose of the painting, and it’s a cool moment when we realize what it’s really about. It’s also nice that Spike and Haskell got to spend 75 years together.

Con: Only the setting is fully developed. Eighty-percent of the way through the story, you’re still waiting for something to happen, and it gets pretty dull.

None of the characters is three-dimensional, not even Spike and Haskell, who are practically interchangeable outside their occupations. Helen is critical to the framing story but hardly plays a role in the main story. Franny and Babs are visible at the start and end but that’s it.

The fantasy element is extremely minor and feels tacked on. If you dropped the framing story and just had them leave town under assumed names at the end, it would make little difference to the core story. Worse, the key fantasy element—the TundΓ©rpΓΆr—is revealed so late in the story that it feels like a deus ex machina. We had no reason to believe Haskel had any magical abilities up to that point.

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6 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I found this fascinating - and beautifully written - but as you say the SF element is very slight.

    1. I agree 100% that the writing is beautiful. I just can't bring myself to recommend a beautifully written story that has serious plotting, pacing, or character issues.

      And this one even had a strong, relevant, gay angle to it. ;-(

  2. This is a 4 for me. I really liked it.

    This is historical fiction / women's fiction with a secondary romance and some fantasy in it. I read romance myself, and this is not romance.

    I was waiting for something to happen, and I am glad it finally did happen. The part where they spent the day at the fair could have been shorter, but that is my only complaint.

    It certainly showed that minorities got a hard time back then.

    The genre SF is present, just not plentiful. It was more than what I expected based on your review.

    Now that I have read the novella, I know what the cover is all about. It is indeed an excellent choice of cover for this story, as well as being lovely art in itself.

    As for Haskell, I think her magic ablilities were limited to 1 thing for emergencies only, so not a problem for me.

    If I'd read it sooner, I'd be wailing about what to leave on my Hugo ballot.

    1. Sorry if I discouraged you from reading it. I agree with you entirely about the cover. I found it heart-wrenching, in fact.

      I often struggle with the subgenre for works like this, and, as you might guess, I'm not really conversant with the Romance genre. I said "romance" because the heart of the story seemed to be about Spike and Haskell getting together, with no other plot outside the framing story. (Which, come to think of it, involves a real frame!)

      I could change the note to use your quote, though. I like "This is historical fiction / women's fiction with a secondary romance and some fantasy in it" better than "This story is first and foremost a romance; the fantasy element is a very small part of the story."

    2. Yes - you can use my quote.

      I rarely read / not read / read later - based on just one single thing, so not to worry.

      I figured a while back "romance" was not your thing. The way to spot "romance" is when the relationship is at the forefront of the story. Everything else takes a backseat to the story - the setting, the history, any action / event that might be occuring, and the sex is far more explicit and there is more of it.

      Passing Strange has a strong historical and social setting. Reading it reminded me of my own visit to the city many years ago, and the group of women friends felt very real. Far more substantial than just romance.

  3. I think the characters were developed.

    Certainly Emily, Haskell, Helen and Franny were. Even the antique book dealer to a lesser degree.