Title: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
Published: January 24th 2017 by Tor
Page Count: 224
Where’d I Get It: Netgalley (eARC)
Rating: 5 stars
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.
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.
Gosh, all right. Wow. This novella really blew me away. The opening was fantastic and sets the scene. An old Chinese woman brings a chalk “painting” to a seller, claiming it’s the last work of a highly sought after artist. It’s under glass, undisturbed for many years, the delicate medium pristine and intact.
And then we’re thrown back into the past. 1940’s San Francisco, into the lives of several ladies. They’re all extremely sapphic, and we’re introduced to that world. There’s a bar that caters to the women, known as a tourist destination, that one of our main characters, Emily, works in, singing in her heart out in her rakish clothing.
Our other main character, Haskel, is the artist whose painting is so desired in the future. What’s funny, is I completely misgendered her upon her first introduction as the artist in question. I assume that was expected by the author, as the seller in question used a lot of he pronouns, while Helen, the old Chinese woman did not.
Haskel meets Emily at the bar mentioned above, drawn to her singing. There’s an altercation at the bar, and the brutish, piano playing woman is removed for disobeying the laws San Franscico set about how a woman should dress and behave. Turns out, she’s Emily’s roommate, and Emily doesn’t want to go back there without the other woman present. Haskel offers Emily a place to stay, and so begins their relationship.
There’s plenty of adorable moments to be had over the next several pages. The women go on romantic dates, and you can almost feel the love seeping off the page. It’s really well done. I commend the author for that. I could actually feel how much the characters cared about each other, and so when the climax of the story appeared, I was rooting for them like crazy.
On one of their dates, Haskel and Emily get adventurous, and Emily dresses up as a man. It just so happens that Haskel’s soon to be ex-husband is in town. Really, they were only missing the paperwork, it’s not like the man was around a lot. He was also super abusive and deserved what was coming to him. The confrontation ends poorly, and the women have nowhere to really turn without getting in trouble for some aspect of their existence.
This is where the magical element seeps in, pretty much the last portion of the story. It’s a sweeping one, fully immersive, and it carries until the end. The novella itself is pretty much perfect. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a good romance, a great climax, and some interesting characters. Hell, I’ve already attempted to recommend it to several people. So we’ll see if they read it. It was really just such a great pick me up after the crazy whirlwind week of news. Even in the low parts of this book, there was hope, and that’s something I needed right now.