Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells – Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (Editors)

Book CoverFrom Goodreads.com: “Gaslamp Fantasy”, or historical fantasy set in a magical version of the nineteenth century, has long been popular with readers and writers alike. A number of wonderful fantasy novels, including Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and The Prestige by Christopher Priest, owe their inspiration to works by nineteenth-century writers ranging from Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Meredith to Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and William Morris. And, of course, the entire steampunk genre and subculture owes more than a little to literature inspired by this period.

            Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells is an anthology for everyone who loves these works of neo-Victorian fiction, and wishes to explore the wide variety of ways that modern fantasists are using nineteenth-century settings, characters, and themes. These approaches stretch from steampunk fiction to the Austen-and-Trollope inspired works that some critics call Fantasy of Manners, all of which fit under the larger umbrella of Gaslamp Fantasy. The result is eighteen stories by experts from the fantasy, horror, mainstream, and young adult fields, including both bestselling writers and exciting new talents such as Elizabeth Bear, James Blaylock, Jeffrey Ford, Ellen Kushner, Tanith Lee, Gregory Maguire, Delia Sherman, and Catherynne M. Valente, who present a bewitching vision of a nineteenth century invested (or cursed!) with magic.

Published: March 2013

Why I Chose It: After reading Shades of Milk and Honey I was very intrigued by the idea of Victorian-era literature combined with fantasy. When I discovered this book I jumped at the chance to read more!

The Review:

Going into this book I really didn’t have a good idea of what “gaslight fantasy” was, but the very first story, “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells” by Delia Sherman, was an excellent place to start. Victoria kept a spell book in which she copied different spells she learned – yet underneath her careful writing was a secret journal, kept hidden away by obscuring spells. The stories from here only got better and more interesting, and I loved all the little subtle magic or technology that occurs in each.

I was amazed at the variety within the book. Not only are there differing levels of magic in stories, there were also stories with special technology, or fantastic creatures. Each author went in vastly different directions and I loved it. The book really called to light different technologies that were available during that time period (and a few that were not) but it was really interesting to see something that became common place – like electricity – in direct comparison to the fantastic elements held within each story. It was an interesting comparison that I really enjoyed.

On top of the magic/technology, the anthology also has a large variety of characters. Previously I had only read stories from the middle to upper class settings, so I was very pleased to see that this book also included lower and working classes. I felt like it supported a more rounded view of the era, and also allowed the imagination to fully appreciate how fantasy could really be present in all levels of life. There was one story about women working in a factory that was unforgettable, not only for the amazing fantasy in the story, but also because it was based on a real female worker movement to unionize.

I really noticed and appreciated the amount of research that was present in all the stories. In some form these stories were all based on real people, real events, sometimes fictional characters form classic stories – there was always something to reference back to, and I felt it really gave all of the stories much more depth and body. I really appreciated that at the end of each story, rather than giving a blurb about the author’s works, the author(s) would instead explain what they had gotten their inspiration from and what people or events (real or fictional) that they had based their stories on. I was enjoying fictional stories, but I actually feel that I learned quite a bit too.

BookofSpells

Finally, there was also a huge variety of writing styles and strategies, something you don’t always see in anthologies. One of my favourites was an epistolary story written in the form of letters between the different characters, but there was also a story told almost like viewing a scrapbook, with different letters, advertisements, diaries, and sermons all captured and preserved together. One of the most imaginative stories that I absolutely loved entered a group of children’s imaginary world, where all of their toys and stories have come true.

Although I found the book to be quite a slow read, I did enjoy it. I wanted to reflect after each story and try to comprehend all the pieces that the author had put together. I am constantly amazed at how much detail exists in short stories, and it’s one of the reasons I keep going back to these types of anthologies. As a short story collection, this anthology has an amazing variety of stories, styles and creations that I was so very pleased with. As an introduction to gaslight fantasy, this book was a definite win, and I am looking forward to reading more of them in the future. :)

Rating: 4 / 5

Quotations:

“My first memory is of being struck by lightening. It was exquisite. I was standing in my grandfather’s field just before the storm broke. White-hot arcs threaded across the whole of the charcoal English sky. Trembling with thrills, I wanted to reach up and touch the delicate, veinlike threads of light. It would seem they wanted to touch me, too.” p 178 (Charged, Leanna Renee Hieber)

“Scrooge was dead; no doubt about that. Dead, and laid out in the parlour as lifeless as last night’s boiled ham hauled out of the larder for today’s cold lungeon. Pure dead, with a relaxed face more waxy than the popular masks of Madame Tussaud, currently available for inspection, for a small fee, at the Baker Street Bazaar. Not that he could scrutinize them now! Two copper pence put paid to his vision by being set upon his eyelids. The last two pence to his name, whispered the laundress.” p 280 (A Few Twigs He Left Behind, Gregory Maguire)

“And they did see something – a man, a hugely fat man, in fact, tottering just below them, his collar turned up to the cold. But his collar was not a collar; it was a fine, illuminated page from some strange manuscript, folded crisply. His waistcoat was fashioned from a coppery book spread out along the spine; his cravat a penny dreadful folded over many times. But queerest of all, the enormous belly that protruded from beneath his coat of printed pages was the carved ebony knob of an ancient scroll […] The fat man looked back at them in terror, then folded up his face, his collar, his cravat, his waistcoat, and his long hymnal legs. He folded up so completely that between the children no longer stood a man at all, but a great fat book firmly shut, lying on the moorland.” p 227-28 (We Without Us Were Shadows, Catherynne M. Valente)

Full Contents:
“The Fairy Enterprise” by Jeffrey Ford
“From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvelous, Scheduled for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire)” by Genevieve Valentine
“The Memory Book” by Maureen McHugh
“Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells” by Delia Sherman
“La Reine D’Enfer” by Kathe Koja
“Briar Rose” by Elizabeth Wein
“The Governess” by Elizabeth Bear
“Smithfield” by James P. Blaylock
“The Unwanted Women of Surrey” by Kaaron Warren
“Charged” by Leanna Renee Hieber
“Mr. Splitfoot” by Dale Bailey
“Phosphorus” by Veronica Schanoes
“We Without Us Were Shadows” by Catherynne M. Valente
“The Vital Importance of the Superficial” by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer
“The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown” by Jane Yolen
“A Few Twigs He Left Behind” by Gregory Maguire
“Their Monstrous Minds” by Tanith Lee
“Estella Saves the Village” by Theodora Goss(less)

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2 comments on “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells – Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (Editors)

  1. stephswint says:

    Beautiful review for a beautiful book

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