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Consider these three words when reading Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories “wait for it.” Like her titular character, Diana Comet, McDonald’s collection is far more than it appears. What at first blush resembles a collection of loosely connected stories with curious climaxes and sideways references soon resolves into a much larger image of Diana’s world, and her effect on it.
The opening vignette, “Prologue,” like the other stories in the collection ends with textbook-style author’s notes that blur the line between fantasy and reality.
Both the first and second story, “Greybeard and the Sea,” feel like snowflakes, possessed of a certain kind of sparkle, but still a bit on the light side. As one continues to read, those snowflakes get thicker, heavier, and more profuse. By the fifth story, “In the Land of Massasoit,” one can’t help but feel that the flurries turned into a blizzard long ago.
McDonald’s prose is witty and urgent, and her author’s notes are as much a part of the story as they are a breach in the fourth wall. Diana Comet is both experimental and playful. At certain points in the story it is easy to feel overwhelmed by false place names, half-imaginary historical personages, and snippets of alternate history. Every so often I felt like I wasn’t in on a joke, but I never got the sense that McDonald was trying too hard to impress. Her references are touchstones that make Diana’s world more vivid.
And what a diverse world it is. Diana Comet is both a transwoman and a person of color. The people she meets seem to come in all sizes, shapes, and orientations. Yet McDonald’s world is at times unkind. Homophobia, poverty, racism and religious bigotry are as much as part of the landscape as the mythological creatures, firemen, and talking animals that occupy the world. Characters suffer, they struggle and make mistakes, and sometimes they get lucky and find happiness in spite of it all. McDonald’s candor is refreshing, as is her sensitivity. Each character takes on his or her difficulties sincerely. Even Diana, who preaches radical acceptance to a heartbroken gay soldier turned cowboy, struggles with the complexities her body presents, as well as the difficulties society imposes on trans women.
There are also moments that seem too glib, like “The Firemen’s Fairy,” in which a firefighter’s attitudes about gay men shift when his life is saved by the house’s fae mascot Tinkerbob. But even these instances are outweighed by the greater strength of the whole.
Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories is joyful, poignant, silly, clever, and once finished it cries out for a second read if only for the satisfaction of being able to say, “I know who that is!” when a recurring character slips past in the background. Names, people, and places which seem incidental on a first pass, like the foreign language books mentioned in the prologue or an eternally youthful pirate queen, take on new significance. McDonald has written a fantastical and at once familiar world in which all of us might find a home, if only for a little while.