Shellie’s review for Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.
Shellie’s quick take: A fantastical and intellectual collection of stories termed “Gaslamp” (set within Victorian times) with dark themes.
Shellie’s thoughts: What is Gaslamp fantasy? It’s fantasy set within the time when gas lamps lit England, before electric lights. So there can be a flavor of steampunk, but gaslamp is a broader genre as reflected by these stories.
In their stories the authors from this collection take “a poke” at the era with its blatant superior belief systems and its male-dominated and class-ridden social structure - as Terry Windling excellently addresses in the beginning to this anthology with her Introduction: Fantasy, Magic, and Fairyland in Nineteenth-Century England. Here the author academically describes how fantasy and magic where seen during Victorian times in England, setting the stage for the stories in this collection.
With eighteen stories, I did not love every one (some of the writing styles where difficult for me to digest), so I have only listed my very favorites. In my opinion these short stories definitely make the book worth the read. Each favored title has a short description including my quick thoughts – perhaps to persuade you to pick up and read one or two.
“The Fairy Enterprise” by Jeffrey Ford - An arrogant industrialist has an idea on how to make money by using fairies. It is wonderfully horrific and has a revengeful ending. I love great revenge stories.
“From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvelous, Scheduled for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire)” by Genevieve Valentine - An unusually told story based upon a true event – The Great Exhibit of 1851 in London and the fire. The story creatively catalogs the fantastical items which where lost in the fire which destroyed the exhibit.
“The Governess” by Elizabeth Bear - Is a dark feminist take on the selkie myth and is one of my top picks for the collection.
“The Unwanted Women of Surrey” by Kaaron Warren - A story set around a group of women whose husbands keep them in a home and away from their families for various reasons. The women get involved in some horrific mischief that is particularly memorable and historically significant to the era.
“Phosphorus” by Veronica Shanoes - And lastly another big favorite of mine is the dark tale based upon the women workers who made matches during the era; they worked under terrible circumstances and absorbed some of the phosphorus from the matches into their bodies.
What I liked about my favorites is that they had an accessible writing style where I was absorbed into the stories; and most brought to light some of aspect of real life horror happening during the time.
In the end I recommend this book for readers looking for a dark fantastic journey into Victorian England, especially readers who enjoy the literature from the era. I’d give 3.5 stars for this short story collection.
Tor Books; March 2013; Trade Paperback; 352 pages.