Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages. ★★★1/2
After reading Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange, I decided to check out more of her work. Wicked Wonders is a collection of her short stories, spanning many different genres. Many of these stories are set in the past, seen from a child’s perspective. Writing from the point of view of children can be tricky, but I think Klages handles it phenomenally.
There’s one story that I could swear I read before, but for the life of me I can’t figure out where – “Education of a Witch.” In this story, a four year old girl sees the then new movie Sleeping Beauty and becomes fascinated with Maleficent. She’s powerful and fashionable. She can turn into a dragon, and she has her own castle. Why be a princess when you can be a witch? The story works on a broader level as a criticism of the limited roles available for girls. Given the narrow categories available for women of the time, there’s an appeal to stepping outside the acceptable and becoming a witch.
I found some of the other stories also looked at the limitations placed upon girls and how their families try to restrict them to socially acceptable roles. In “Woodsmoke” a girl relishes her summers spent at camp, where she gets to live truly as herself without restricting herself to her mother’s standards of what’s acceptably feminine. The story chronicles her love for summer camp and her blossoming feelings for another girl. This story is beautifully written and will stick with me for a long time. However, I did think the way it used the existence of intersex people as a plot twist could be considered exploitative.
I wasn’t a huge fan of either of the two science fiction stories. “Amicae Aeternum” is the last morning of two best friends, before one of them has to board a generation ship and leave Earth forever. In “Goodnight Moons” an astronaut on a trip to Mars discovers that she’s pregnant. Like all of Klages stories, the writing is lovely, but for whatever reason they don’t appeal. Maybe I have different expectations for science fiction than for her more historical stories.
While most of the stories are serious in tone, there’s a couple of more humorous takes. In “Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl,” a down on his luck thief acquires a magic map that he’s told leads to a wizard’s hideout. This wizard is said to posses the pearl that the emperor is asking a fortune for. In actuality, the pearl is a recipe for artificial fat and the wizard is a young woman who’s using her knowledge of chemistry to try and create it. When the thief comes sniffing around, she and her girlfriend set a plan in motion.
The other more humorous tale is actually non-fiction. When technical difficulties were causing delays in the Nebula Awards, Ellen Klages went up on stage and entertained the audience by telling them about a ham her father had hanging in his basement for years, “The Scary Ham.”
I could see traces of the life experience Klages described in “The Scary Ham” (cleaning out the house of a parent who has passed) in one of the fictional stories, “Echoes of Aurora.” In this story, an older woman arrives to clean out her childhood home and ends up spending the entire summer with the mysterious woman she finds there.
Other stories include the subtly creepy “Singing on a Star,” the historical “Hey, Presto!,” the origin of a character from Passing Strange in “Caligo Lane,” the mind bending “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox,” the magic of math in “Gone to the Library,” becoming literally immersed in board games with “Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s,” and a closer look at Sherlock Holmes’s landlady in “Household Management.”
Ellen Klages is a phenomenally skilled writer with the miraculous ability to immerse her readers into nostalgic years of childhoods passed. Her stories also have a clear feminist bent, with the focus on the lives of smart and strong willed women. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Wicked Wonders.
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for a free and honest review.