Review: Passing Strange

This book surprised me. I expected a fantasy novel filled with magic. What I got was a beautiful love story set in 1940’s San Fransisco, with every word masterfully written. It’s light on the fantasy, but manages to add in a very interesting depiction of the artistic process behind the fun and shocking art plastering pulp novels in the early science fiction/comic book era.


Ellen Klages, 2017


An old woman sells a painting in modern day. The story of the artist unfolds amidst the lesbian culture of 1940’s San Fransisco. A love story emerges, conflict ensues. A magical ending awaits.



San Fransisco was the real main character of this novella, filling the pages with a setting that engulfed the story. The author took us through the facinating parts of the city, from Chinatown to a famed night club to an early lesbian bar to the World’s Fair. The city shines under the author’s pen, offering another type of magic as she plays with descriptions of light and dark, of a city changing every day. The writing was beautiful, leaving me with the feeling of just returning from a trip to San Fransisco. It was wonderful.


It started slow but blossomed into a beautiful story of forbidden love, taking place behind closed doors nestled within the city they loved. A nightclub performer and an artist of horrific pulp magazine covers falling in love over her voice and the circumstances of a less than desirable living situation. They move in together and it becomes a paradise for them. Their love leaps off the page, as you watch two women who have had difficult pasts lower their walls and discover each other. I’ve read a lot of LGBT fiction and seen more LGBT films than I could possibly list and this is, hands down, the best LGBT love story I’ve read. The thoughtfulness of the author blew me away and their happy ending was the perfect finishing touch in a genre that errs toward tragic goodbyes.


I’d never thought about pulp artwork before, beyond a few laughs at the absurdity of the drawings. The novel goes into the artistic process behind the scenes, showing how one woman uses her personal demons to inspire the grotesque artwork she’s known for. The monsters and the heroines represent her past and her present colliding. It was a deep, layered addition to this beautiful story.


The fantasy in the novel was definitely light until the end. There are hints of magic at the beginning, of a friend who is able to travel long distances using magic bits of paper. It’s not explained much but it’s a novel concept. The book creates an interesting conversation on the difference between science and magic. In the 1940’s, it’s argued that the two could go hand in hand, with so much of the scientific world still to be understood. The ending was complete fantasy, a type of magic I didn’t expect or imagine, and it made the story more beautiful than I expected. It was a perfect finish.


I’ve never read Klages and hadn’t heard of her until I found this novel on the list of Tor novellas. She is a masterful writer and her style makes the story so life-like and believable that you feel like you’re transported into her fictional world. That’s a rare thing to find in any type of fiction, and she does it so well. Every detail was there, perfectly researched and presented, the magic showing up at the right time, the love story and conflicts arising at precise moments. It’s masterfully executed and, as is evidenced by the above review, I can’t speak highly enough about it. I can make one guarantee – I’ll be reading every book she’s written.

Photo by Kyle Mills on Unsplash

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