Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing
Release Date: January 24, 2017
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 mystery, science, and art intersect.
Historical (1940s, San Francisco)
Magic, Science, Art
POC (Asian) (Secondary Character)
Content Warnings for:
Death (Secondary Character)
Mention of Conversion Therapy
Mention of Child Abuse
The strength of Passing Strange lies in the setting, which is richly atmospheric and vivid. Picturing San Francisco in the 1940s and its contemporary Chinatown is easy and reading feels more like experiencing than observing. We visit all kinds of different venues, and place and time come alive on the page.
I was drawn to this book because of its incredibly beautiful and stunning cover and the blurb sounded really interesting to me as well. The opening chapters are set today and captivatingly frame the main story that takes place in history. To me, they are even more mesmerising and intriguing than what is to follow.
While the setting is really well done, I think the romance and the characters take a backseat in the story, although they have quite a lot of page time. I can see that this is intentional, but I prefer a narration that is closer to the characters and shows me a development of feelings or just any kind of change really.
Speaking of the narration, it feels to me like the point of view is jumping around. Giving us insight into one character, then into the next; sometimes being closer to them, but most of the time narrating from a distance. It was sometimes even confusing and I didn’t know who was thinking or doing what and it pulled me out of the story several times.
Now, the paranormal aspect of the story. Huh. I really like the framework and how everything is resolved and plays together. I think it’s kinda really brilliant. So that’s a big plus. But for, let’s say, 90% of the story it doesn’t feel like a book with magic or anything unusual at all. There is one very small incident in the beginning and then there is nothing, and then nothing, up to a point that I even found it irritating that I didn’t know whether I was reading a historical or something else. Like I said, it ties up really cool, but I wish it would feel more like a comprehensive whole and not a historical with some mostly unexplained stuff thrown into it.
I like that the cast of characters is quite diverse. One of the main characters is lesbian, the other bisexual. Another important secondary character is of Asian background and many different kinds of lesbians can be found in the book, with none being drawn better than the other.
Despite the many content warning tags, I wouldn’t say that this book is drowning in negativity or heaviness, which might also have to do with the distant narration style, so I hope it won’t sway you from picking this up.
To summarise, this is a good novella but it isn’t perfect. However, it is something unique with an interesting setting and a story that in this form probably hasn’t been told, and I hope you’ll enjoy it if you decide to pick it up.
Her short fiction has appeared in science fiction and fantasy anthologies and magazines, both online and in print, including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Black Gate, Eclipse, and Firebirds Rising. Her story, “Basement Magic,” won the Best Novelette Nebula Award in 2005. Several of her other stories have been on the final ballot for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo Awards, and have been reprinted in various Year’s Best volumes.
She was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, and is a graduate of the Clarion South writing workshop.
Her first novel, The Green Glass Sea, about two misfit eleven-year-old girls living in Los Alamos during WWII, while their parents are creating the atomic bomb, came out in October 2006 from Sharyn November at Viking. Her second novel, White Sands, Red Menace,was published in 2008, also from Viking. A collection of her short fiction, Portable Childhoods, came out from Tachyon Publications in 2007.
She has also written four books of hands-on science activities for children (with Pat Murphy, et al.) for the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco.
When she’s not writing fiction, she sells old toys and magazines on eBay, and collects lead civilians.
You can purchase Passing Strange from:
Barnes & Noble
I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.