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Short fiction collections and anthologies are so often ignored in favor of novels and novellas, which is too bad in some ways—because one of the very best aspects of a short story collection is the variety and scope of individual work and the luxury of choosing which story to read and in whatever order one cares to follow. A well-crafted short story is as satisfying as a novel without hundreds of pages to plow through. The editors of Hellebore & Rue, Joselle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff, have put together a collection that has a little of something for everyone, and will not disappoint readers who love and appreciate the complexities of fantasy fiction’s many cultural connections and narratives.
The back cover tells us that the “essence of fantasy is magic and the folklore of women has often dwelt on the innumerable powers they possess. Magic that heals, magic that destroys, magic that saves their community.” And so the stories of Hellebore & Rue follow this prescription, perhaps too much so, and perhaps because fantasy fiction has become such a force to be reckoned with—a dynamo of the publishing world—that readers and critics pay close attention to how this genre—especially in the world of GLBTQ literature—is evolving. But of course that is a broader subject for dissertation, not a book review, which this is, and so my focus is on Hellebore & Rue.
The twelve stories are similar in their basics: a good witch encounters a bad witch or warlord or other evil sort of creature, garners her incredible powers of intuitive wisdom, ability to see the future (although not really seeing the future, just shades of the future), reaches into the magic bag or packet or book and whamo! the good witch triumphs! Or does she? This is one of the questions Hellebore & Rue raises because most of these stories are unresolved and open-ended, but they left me wanting more, regardless of whether or not the stories stand alone or fit neatly into a novel or series. Add to this a centuries worth of references from traditional myths and legends, some twisted, if not creepy humor, as in “”D” for Delicious,” which brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, romance and adventure, and you have one hell of an interesting collection.
In “Trouble Arrived” for example, C. B. Calsing’s intriguing story set in an isolated bayou, the anthropological work of Zora Neal Hurston, who studied the folklore and folktales of rural Florida and the Caribbean (Mules and Men, 1935; Tell My Horses, 1938), came to mind—as well as the backwoods speakeasy in Fried Green Tomatoes. Calsing’s Queenie and Mama Pye reveal, through dialogue and gesture their intelligence, sensuality, respect, and love.
Mama Pye sat down after fixing her own plate. “How far off, do you reckon?”
Queenie listened to all the sounds in the room—and those she could hear from outside—trying to find a place, a time when whatever came her way would arrive. “Hours, maybe less.” Sure enough, things whispered out there, told her to take care, to be wary. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Ah, she thought. Like a dog that smells a threat in the wind, Queenie had a foreboding of what was to come. She looked down at her plate. She knew she’d need her energy for whatever would cross her threshold. She dug into the potato salad.
“Why you put peas in there again?” she asked Mama Pye as she separated them out, one by one. “You know I don’t take to peas in the potato salad.”
“Ain’t the only one eating, Jeanette.”
Queenie sighed and went about her dinner.
And the climatic exchange between Queenie and Black Rooster reveals the emotional complexity of their history from the fascinating perspective of conjurers now grown old.
Connie Wilkins’s “The Windskimmer” is a romantic throwback to Katherine Forrest’s classic Daughters of the Coral Dawn, with a bit of Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, thrown in. In this futuristic tale, the relationship between Menka and Aviel survives a separation that had, obviously, been very public and very painful:
On trial in the capital for treason, she had focused such fury on Aviel that there could be, she hoped, no tinge of blame transferred to her former friend. Powerful forces… had caused the charges to be dropped, and Manka’s standing in her craft had been, if anything, advanced. But now, glancing at the three wings etched across the pilot’s brow where there should have been four, she suspected that Aviel had not fared as well.
Lisa Nohealani Morton’s “And Out of the Strong came Sweetness” is replete with references to Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but without the myopic male-or female-centered privilege foundational to both classics.
Whether or not the authors of any of these tales were deliberate or conscious in their choices of metaphors, literary references and symbols is beside the point; what these comparative cultural integrations underscore are the similarities and commonalities of human experiences. This is why the work in this anthology triumphs; they are well-written, humane, thought-provoking, and entertaining.
Hellebore & Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic
Joselle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff, ed.