The Gaslamp Fantastic: Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells is an anthology of gaslamp fantasy—stories set in or around the world of nineteenth-century Victorian England—edited by the ever-dynamic Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The contributor’s list is full of familiar names: Delia Sherman, Elizabeth Bear, Theodora Goss, Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer, Catherynne M. Valente, Jane Yolen, and so on. Many of these authors have previously written fantasies of manners or neo-Victorian stories; others visit the topic with fresh eyes.

The stories themselves touch a variety of genres and themes, from a contemporary academic fantasy to metafictional riffs on classic Victorian novels (and, of course, a light smattering of stories that might otherwise be considered “steampunk”). Several, also, offer critical portraits of the people within Britain who weren’t (and aren’t) often allowed their own words or stories: servants, wage laborers, and the people upon whose backs the glossy Victorian façade was built.

While the majority of the stories in Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells are competent, engaging, and rendered with a thorough attention to detail, there are several that stood out above the rest. The titular piece, Delia Sherman’s “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells,” is an academic story set in a contemporary world with magic, wherein the protagonist is peeling apart the spells hiding Queen Victoria’s real diary entries as a research project under a manipulative older man on the faculty. The interwoven narratives of Victoria’s mistakes, the oft-grotesque power of wielding magic, and the necessities of surviving in a hierarchical system like academia as a woman: all of these are well-matched, well-wrought, and revelatory in juxtaposition with each other. Sherman’s piece is subtle and slow to build, full of internal conflicts and loaded interactions. The resolution, too, is momentarily uplifting, as two women connect over their shared experiences and find a way around the pitfalls of their system. I can see why this story is the titular piece; the thematic complexity is delightful, and the contemporary setting offers an angle for the reader into how we might deconstruct history and the implicit narratives it contains.

That effort to interpret and revitalize history is also what makes one of my favorite stories in the collection so intense. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is a powerful and haunting piece about the brutality of the industrial capitalist system, based in real, monstrous history. The actual narrative is predominantly subtle and personal—interactions between the protagonist and her grandmother, the protagonist and her woman-worker associates, etc. The threads of sacrifice, suffering, and exploitation that run through this story are gripping, not less so because they are informed by an oft-erased reality. As the author’s note that follows the story says, “The enthusiasm for Steampunk has produced some marvelous, incisive writing, and some gorgeous pieces of art. But is has also glamorized the Victorian era and too often ignored the exploitation and immiseration of the working class of England as well as the inhabitants of the lands England sought to rule. […] It’s easy to forget how the people who indulged in afternoon tea rituals, admired clockwork-powered inventions, and wore shapely and beautiful corsets and bustles profited from the death and suffering of others every time they lit a candle.” I appreciated the strength of this story and its message alike; it is a tale that will likely remain with me for some while. (The author’s notes included in this collection are interesting, and frequently provide commentary or sources for the pieces they follow—something I appreciated.)

Two further stories also offered different and intriguing avenues into the anthology’s theme. “For the Briar Rose” by Elizabeth Wein is a gentle piece concerned with being the odd one out in a creative community, with the structures of Victorian womanhood, and ultimately, with the loves that can fill out a life. Set amongst the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this piece brings to life on the page their families, their losses, and their beautiful friendships; while reading historical fiction about actual people can be odd, in this case, it’s handsome and touching. That it’s informed by the writer’s own experience of childbirth also gives it an intimate touch.

Lastly, “We Without Us Were Shadows” by Catherynne M. Valente is one of the metafictional pieces of the book—a story about stories and the writing of them—and perhaps the strongest, though I also enjoyed Theodora Goss’s “Estella Saves the Village.” At first, I was unsure of this piece; the descriptions of the Brontë children on their walk seemed almost too self-indulgent—but, as soon as the story built momentum and slipped into the world of Glass Town, I forgot my initial resistance. The idea of interwoven worlds, or of worlds that write other worlds into being, isn’t new, but Valente’s handling of it here is sharp and poignant. The power of narrative to shift and change things—a power that came to fruition for journalism and novels in the nineteenth century—is the star of this piece, and one that is ultimately imperfect and prone to destruction.

Of course, as with any anthology of a given size, there are weaker pieces as well. “Charged” by Leanna Renee Hieber is a villain-narrative that’s so overwrought as to ultimately be nothing but dull; Tanith Lee’s “Their Monstrous Minds” is a predictable retreading of the Dr. Frankenstein scenario in an alternate-universe Victorian Britain, with a closing allegory on empire that’s rendered far too transparent. I also didn’t care for Jeffrey Ford’s “The Fairy Enterprise,” but I suspect that this has more to do with my personal foibles than the story itself, which other readers might find perfectly entertaining—I, however, found it grating rather than amusing.

And, while the strength of Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells lies in its variety, so too, by omission, does its weakness. Given the range of stories included, I was rather surprised not to see a single story set in the British colonies or explicitly involving the brutal building of Empire. The closest that the anthology comes is Jane Yolen’s “The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown,” which is really about the odd friendship of Queen Victoria and her prime minister, Disraeli, and only takes a snapshot of the moment in which they decide to expand the empire. Or, alternately, Genevieve Valentine’s piece set in and around the Great Exposition—a story that is tangentially concerned with the mechanisms of colonization that allowed for the Exposition to occur as it did in the first place. Perhaps the editors felt that stories set outside the British isles weren’t quite within their purview—but, contemporary fantasies about the time period make up a part of this book, and that seems even further removed than a piece set in the outer reaches of the Victorian British empire.

As a whole, despite that curious elision, Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells is a well-constructed anthology with enough variety in its offerings to engage most readers who appreciate the fantastic. The theme could, potentially, have been restrictive or produced pieces that were simply more-of-the-same; I appreciate that, for the most part, the anthology instead takes different angles on the idea of “gaslamp fantasy” to fill out a fairly rich and entertaining spread of offerings. For those who are interested in the tales and history of the Victorian era, this book has a selection of strong stories to catch and keep their attention.

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells is published by Tor Books. It is available March 19.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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