“Passing Strange” by Ellen Klages is a lightly fantastic tale of life in San Francisco’s lesbian culture in the 1940s. A wistful romance, in part. A mystery as well. Framed by modern bookends steeped in the culture of geeky collectables. It’s a quick and engrossing read and is an excellent example of how the same world-building techniques essential to SFF are put to good use in period settings.
In one important way it reminds me strongly of “Wakulla Springs”, the Hugo and Nebula shortlisted novella Klages co-authored with Andy Duncan. Both are essentially historic stories where the fantastic elements are not so much secondary as very lightly overlaid. Where the story could have been told without fantastic elements at all, although it would be a different story in that case. In the present case, it would have been a story more in line with the lesbian pulps and might have required a more tragic or at least bittersweet ending. Instead (and I don’t particularly consider this a spoiler), the fantasy elements allow the characters to slip sideways into a happy ending, with a touch of poetic justice in the epilogue.
I’m not entirely sure what the technical definition of “magical realism” is, but it seems to be the appropriate description. I enjoyed it. If you do too, keep your eyes peeled for Klages’ upcoming collection Wicked Wonders.