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A review of Hellebore & Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic

Monday, June 20th, 2011 | Posted by Cynthia Ward

hellebore-and-rueHellebore & Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic
Edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff
Drollerie Press (Ebook [Kindle], 238 pp., $9.99, February 2011)
Lethe Press (Trade Paperback, 238 pp., $15.00, May 2011)

Fantasy allows us to see the world not as it is, but as it might be.

Worlds where mortals have powers and abilities we can only dream of; where women neither need nor expect to rely on a man; where genders and orientations are equal, or face inequities starker than our own.

You’ll find all these possibilities, and more, in the twelve worlds of Hellebore & Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic, the new anthology edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff.

In opening story “Counterbalance,” Ruth Sorrell’s impressive first fiction publication, the world isn’t too different from ours. It initially resembles a typical urban fantasy milieu: magic’s real; the setting’s a modern metropolis; there’s a vampire slayer; there’s a nightclub/bar/safe space for the supernatural set. But the protagonist, Riley, isn’t the vampire slayer–she’s the most powerful being in Toronto. And the safe space? It isn’t, leaving Riley facing a newcomer much too powerful to oppose alone.

Another contemporary fantasy, C.B. Calsing’s “Trouble Arrived,” draws skillfully on a locale and tradition rarely seen in the subgenre (the Louisiana bayou country and the Voodoo/Vodun religion), as Queen Jeannette defends her lover, their home, and a shady interloper from her dangerous ex-mentor, who taught her everything she knows–but only a portion of everything he knows.

Jean Marie Ward’s contemporary fantasy, “Personal Demons,” ends abruptly and not happily; but it takes some interesting turns as a nurse practitioner-cum-tantric magician deals with her manipulative lover and struggles to save an innocent girl from demonic possession.

In “The Windskimmer,” a fine secondary-world fantasy that would fit nicely in a volume of Sword & Sorceress, Connie Wilkins shifts the anthology to an imaginative realm of magic and hot-air balloon travel, as aging greenwright Menka must work one more time with her windpilot ex-lover to undo the effects of the war Menka refused to fight.

In Kelly A. Harmon’s “Sky Lit Bargains,” an entertaining historical fantasy also well-suited to Sword & Sorceress, the resourceful warrior Sigrid must contend with her amorous brother-in-law, her dickering uncle, a loyal witch-woman, and a wealth-hoarding wyvern.

Quinn Smythwood’s “Gloam” returns the anthology to a modern world much like ours, as witch/magic shop owner/first-person narrator Nilla Hayes foresees her own death and accepts a regrettable commission. The story moves a little slowly, but Nilla cleverly outwits the conjoined threats.

Juliet Kemp’s solid “Witches Have Cats” features, predictably, a witch whose familiar isn’t feline; but this tale of a contemporary witch waking to her powers takes some unpredictable turns as she and her dog track down a friend trapped in an intriguing version of Faerie.

Writer/editor/publisher Steve Berman’s deceptively gentle “D is for Delicious” is definitely the anthology’s most twisted tale, as an aging school nurse finds the secret of magical strength and restored youth in the fate of Hansel and Gretel. Barring the occasional four-letter word, Hellebore and Rue is family-friendly fare, but it’s unlikely many parents will want their young ones reading this story.

The evocatively titled “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness”┬ámoves the anthology into the near future with Lisa Nohealani Morton’s apparent first fiction sale, a dystopic blend of science fiction and fantasy. The excitement builds as Lila, an energy-eating witch, finds herself fleeing the laser-eyed, witch-killing Angels with her Angel lover. Unfortunately, the ending is undercut by the revelation that the relocating Lila could have moved to a different city and avoided the problem of Angels in the first place.

Reminiscent of Rachel Caine’s bestselling Weather Warden urban fantasy series, Rrain Prior’s tense “Bridges and Lullabies” has a grittier, more working-class feel. It follows a musician/witch/bounty hunter as she tracks the fire elemental threatening a national park with destruction, and takes some unexpected twists as it rises to the climax.

In the star-spanning far future of Sunny Moraine’s inventive “Thin Spun,” a self-blinded woman, exiled from her home and her beloved, uses a mind-bending sort of quantum disentanglement to aid a starship thief, and thereby finds a kind of peace.

The anthology ends as strongly as it begins, with Rachel Green’s “A State of Panic,” an ambitious multi-viewpoint police procedural in which a contemporary British cop/closeted witch combines her magical and mundane skills to uncover a particularly powerful preternatural killer.

If you’re looking for an anthology with a balanced mix of contemporary, historical, and imaginary settings, you’ll find this one too weighted toward urban fantasy. Similarly, you’ll find an uneven ratio of warriors to witches, and of sufficiently advanced technology to sorcery. However, if you’re seeking a lesbian counterweight to the heavily heterosexual slant of urban fantasy, or looking for tough, smart, believable, sympathetic, fascinating protagonists, you’ll find a great deal to recommend Hellebore & Rue.

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