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Book Review: Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories by Catherine Lundoff

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 - 06:00

If I had to sum up Lundoff’s collection Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories in a single word (which would be a totally unfair thing to require me to do) it would be “versatile.” This volume touches base on a broad variety of genres and subgenres yet succeeds in being a unified stylistic whole. There is everything from steampunk horror to hard-boiled alien invasion to magical police procedural, each story both drawing lovingly from its literary inspirations and turning them upside down.

When I say the collection is a unified stylistic whole, I’m not talking specifically of the titular theme of “queer speculative fiction.” While I appreciate the market targeting signaled by that title, non-default identity here is pervasive but casual. The characters, in their myriad genders and orientations, are all queer in some fashion, but queerness is never the central point of the story. It simply is. Someday we’ll be able to expect that sort of inclusion in stories without needing to be reassured of it in the marketing (which can have the down side of inspiring non-queer readers to pass on by).

With collections, I’m never sure whether to say something about each individual story or simply touch on the highlights. Let’s go for the former. “Great Reckonings, Little Rooms” is a straightforward alternate history involving Shakespeare’s fictional sister, his inspirational Dark Lady, and presenting a somewhat different fate for Kit Marlowe than the one in our history books. There’s a gritty, immersive familiarity with the Elizabethan setting that inspires one to double-check exactly where the timeline diverged from our own. “Medium Méchanique” is also set in an alternate version of our history: a steam-punky supernatural horror story that asks just how far a woman would go to be reunited with her true love. Shudderingly gripping with just a touch of gruesome in places.

“The Egyptian Cat” aims for a blend of humor and supernatural thriller, or perhaps a parody of both. It perhaps treads a bit closely to self-parody, opening with the main character sifting through submissions for an anthology of cat-related Lovecraftian stories. The concept is clever and works in the end, but I felt the prose may have been the weakest of the collection, at least in the opening. One of the overarching themes is how Lundoff plays to the strengths of her own experience. Her bookstore-running experience may have helped inspire “At the Roots of the World Tree” in which the clerk of a possibly sentient bookstore is tapped by Norse deities to help push back the day of Ragnarok. Clever, funny, and atmospheric. Another story drawing on traditional literature is “A Scent of Roses,” which takes a wistful and critical look at living with Tam Lin after he’s been won back from the Queen of Faerie. The Queen of Faerie is still drawn to brave and passionate mortals, and she doesn’t play fair. I held my breath through this one, unnecessarily fearing a depressing or tragic ending.

Going somewhat out of order, there were three stories that I’d tend to classify as “standard fantasy quest” tales: set in medievalish secondary worlds (all different, as far as I can tell, but they might easily have been different regions of the same setting). Each involves stock characters facing set-piece goal-oriented challenges. In terms of personal enjoyment, I preferred the stories with less stock settings, but these do expand the overall scope of the included subgenres. “At Mother Laurie’s House of Bliss” is a sorcerous police procedural set in a brothel, with a young man’s life depending on his ability to prove he didn’t kill the nobleman who dropped dead in his bed. “Beauty” starts out with a despised king’s son, born to a mother of the deposed Old Blood of the kingdom who shifts from merely trying to survive to the hope of claiming his right to the kingdom. Then you throw in a vampire bridegroom for the protagonist’s sister who kind of likes him better. Of all the stories in this collection, this one falls the closest to erotica, including a generous dollop of enemies-to-lovers as well as a rape scene. It may not be everyone’s thing. The third in this group is “A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace” in which our protagonists need to infiltrate a castle in the middle of a coup to deal with the aftereffects of magical body-swapping. Several unexpected twists at the end (including at least one subtle character possibility I almost missed) save it from being an ordinary D&D campaign tale.

One of Lundoff’s strengths is layering a bit of romantic comedy over the base genre. Like the third story mentioned above, “Spell Book and Candle” is a supernatural romantic adventure involving cats and a family heritage of magic, this time dealing with some tricky issues of magical ethics and the spirit of an unrestful ancestor.

I have to confess that for sheer whacky genre-blending, “Red Scare” takes the cake with its sci-fi / hardboiled detective / alien invasion / political conspiracy plot. I think it took me less than one page to accept that one wasn’t meant to ask the question, “Why are the colonists on this planet performing self-conscious gangster-movie roles with bug-eyed monsters in the wings and made-up drugs subbing in for moonshine?” No, you just plunge in and go with the flow. The setting never does make any more logical sense from an economic or sociological viewpoint, but I stopped caring because the in-story logic and action was so compelling.

There’s an art to choosing the last story in a collection, and “Vadija” was well placed to leave this reader wanting more. It’s a poetic, lyrical tale about survival and storytelling and coming back to our own beginnings. It’s interesting: although I know for a fact that I read this story on the page, it sits in my memory as an oral tale because the language is so beautiful.

In describing the contents of this collection, I have so far avoided using the word “diverse” because that term currently carries a weight of specific connotations, but in the ordinary senses of the word, this is a very diverse collection in terms of characters, themes, genres, and mood. You will never feel like you’re reading the same story twice, and many of these stories will make you long for an entire novel expanding on that seed. Highly recommended. Whether you think you’re the target audience for “queer stories” or not.

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