Book Review: Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages is having a good year, which is also a boon for those of us who love good short fiction. Klages’ Tor.com novella, Passing Strange, is sure to be among the best of 2017, and it was a fortuitous discovery for me as I hadn’t read anything by Ellen Klages before. When I saw that she had a new collection of short fiction coming out from Tachyon just a couple of months later, I was thrilled.  I was even more thrilled when I got approved for the ARC on NetGalley, and my excitement turned out to be totally warranted. Wicked Wonders is, with one significant and honestly baffling exception, full of consistently thoughtful, clever, affecting stories, all overlaid by a sort of gently reassuring feeling of nostalgia.

The only major criticism I have of the collection specifically concerns the story “Woodsmoke,” which starts off as a nice story about girls bonding (maybe even falling in adolescent love) at a summer camp but then turns into the horrendously sensationalized reveal that one of the girls has an intersex condition, complete with immediate misgendering and melodramatic handwringing about “I don’t know your real name.” It’s a bizarre bait and switch that feels like a betrayal of the characters (who deserve better treatment) and the spirit of the story (which up to that point was fine, if unremarkable). Frankly, I don’t know what Klages was about with this story, and her explanation of it in the Story Notes section at the back of the book is unhelpful except to say that she hopes to make it part of a novel length work at some point (please no). If “Woodsmoke” had appeared early in the collection, I may have stopped reading the book altogether because it was so deeply upsetting; as it is, I can only recommend Wicked Wonders with a major reservation.

Regarding the rest of the collection, many of the stories in Wicked Wonders deal with childhood, and Klages has a real knack for capturing something of the bittersweetness of coming of age moments. “The Education of a Witch” explores a young girl’s identification with a villainess, and it’s a story that will likely be relatable, albeit in different ways, both to those of us who grew up before princess culture and those who grew up immersed in it. “Singing on a Star” is looks at the anxieties that surround a child’s first sleepover. Often, Klages’ stories feature precocious girls with creatively clever and interesting ways of looking at the world, as in “Gone to the Library” (which also features a cameo by Grace Hopper).

Most of these stories deal with transitions of one kind or another. In “Amicae Aeternum” (a story which legit made me weep when I read it and is literally making me tear up as I write this), a young girl says goodbye to her best friend before moving very far away. “Echoes of Aurora” is a gorgeously melancholy autumnal love story that deals with a non-childhood life change. “Hey, Presto!” is a smart and thoughtful coming of age story about a young woman reconnecting with her father and discovering they have more in common than she previously thought. In “Goodnight Moons,” a story that that recalls nothing more than Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, an astronaut takes a much bigger leap for humanity than she thought she was going to when she signed up to go to Mars.

Also evident in this collection is a sharply wry sense of humor, and Klages often uses ironic turns of phrase and sly references to great effect. “Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” is a smart and funny original fairytale that should appeal to fans of Ursula Vernon. “The Scary Ham” is a short, humorous nonfiction story about the grieving process (and it was a very scary ham). “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” carries social nicety between women to a logical extreme, making use of a single strong central joke for maximum effect.

To be sure, there’s a decided slightness to all the stories in this collection, which is sometimes at odds with the ostensibly serious subject matter Klages writes about. While there is a little darkness in some of the stories, Klages’ endings are almost universally happy, or at least optimistic, and I suspect this won’t appeal to all readers. Still, there’s something to be said for short, sweet stories that don’t require a great deal of thought to understand and enjoy, and Wicked Wonders, for the most part, has a pleasantly restful quality that makes it quietly delightful to read.

This review is based on an advance copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.

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