I’m the first to admit that short stories are not really my thing. By the time you’ve gotten a good feel for the lay of the land and the characters, it’s over. It’s the petits-four of literature: bite size bits that are occasionally delectable, but often are just filler that I eat because I’m not thinking about it too hard.
And on top of that, the Victorian era really isn’t my jam either. Sometimes I really appreciate the stories of manners and manors, but a lot of time, I find the whole society strange and overblown. Plus, with its extreme income inequality, everyone is either rich and fabulous or incredibly poor and sad. So either way, kind of a downer.
But Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells made Kirkus’s top ten sci-fi/fantasy books of the year, so I thought I’d give it a shot. It’s the time of year when all sorts of year end lists coax me into reading things beyond my usual purview.
And as someone who doesn’t read a lot of short stories, these were pretty good. The entire collection is built around the “gaslamp fantasy” genre. Basically, that means that it’s the Victorian era, but there are magical bits and pieces. But because it’s not pure fantasy, the magic is often subtle or a minor element.
Some of the stories read incredibly quickly, are instantly engaging, and stand on their own. The eponymous story by Delia Sherman offers up a world where magic is an everyday part of life, and the hidden ciphers of Queen Victoria offer new insight into her life and character. “Phosphorus” by Veronica Schanoes refreshingly tells the story of people who aren’t the best and the brightest; rather, it tells the story of the founding of the matchgirls union to protest the crazy unsafe working conditions. Apparently, white phosphorous from matches would get in the workers’ food, and then it would migrate into their jaw through their cavities (because it’s the 19th century and you’re a matchgirl, so you’re dental hygiene isn’t the best), and then their jaw would rot off. Rot. Off. Seriously, if I believed in hell, there would be no way that any industrial baron from the Victorian era made it out. Not a chance.
So yeah, tycoons of business suck, and they do the sucking in more than a couple of these stories. Probably my favorite of the batch, though, is “The Vital Importance of the Superficial” by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevemer. This story of magical artifacts lost and regained is told in an epistolary style, but the author keeps shifting, giving it a Rashomon-style feel. Plus, it moves quickly and is relatively action-packed for a collection that is overall pretty sedate. Also, I appreciate that the authors composed this story in alternating letters via e-mail. A good creation story always makes me love the finished product even more.
For as good as the strengths are in this collection, though, some parts are unmemorable or just disappointing. And because they’re short, I felt like I should read to the end even if it wasn’t promising because they weren’t that long to slog through. But having to slog at all is a disappointing, and anthologies are the quintessential “some were good, some were bad, and there was a whole lot of meh.” This one isn’t really an exception
JMF Rating: 6.5/10
‘Til next time,