Catherine Lundoff and JoSelle Vanderhooft, Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic. Lethe Press, 2011. Pp. 238. ISBN 978-1590213773. $15.00.Reviewed by Carey Gates
From a servant girl with healing powers to a witch detective who uses demons instead of a computer to solve cases, the stories in Hellebore and Rue have a nice range of settings from medieval through modern. There is also a nice mix of locations from both sides of the Pond, with very identifiable North American and English backdrops. The stories range from “good” or white magic to black magic. Overall, the editors selected a nice sampling of stories.
I was looking forward to what looked like it should be an interesting exploration of female relationships in occult settings. I was somewhat disappointed that almost all of the stories involved a less than happy relationship between the lovers, and most worked from the premise of the two women having ended their relationship. It sometimes seemed that the relationship aspect was thrown in as an afterthought rather than an integral part of the story. Most of the relationships end at the beginning of the story, very often due to the main characters choosing to continue the use of their magical abilities. The impression from the collection as a whole is that a lesbian woman can’t have her magic and a relationship too, which is just so the opposite of what I was looking for in an anthology styled as “Tales of Queer Women and Magic”. The collection wasn’t nearly as strong in the “queer” aspect of the stories as I would have expected. This observation isn’t necessarily a criticism of the editors, as I have seen how difficult it is to get quality pieces that portray healthy lesbian relationships. This is more my call to writers to step up—there’s a lot of opportunity here!
The magical aspect however, was very rewarding. Had this been a book about “Women and Magic” it would have been exactly what I expected.
The first story, ‘Counterbalance’, got my hopes up. Even though it is written in an abstract third person voice, the relationship is just what you would expect to actually see in real life—a little bickering, a little forgetfulness, but always there for each other. It also showed more of what I expected from at least a few more of the stories, but didn’t find.
‘Trouble Arrived’ was probably the most “traditional” magic story from an American standard. This one was the best in the anthology at pulling me into the narrative and almost making me feel like I was in the story. This may be partially due to having been to Louisiana, so I could really picture the marshy backwoods the story it is set in.
‘Personal Demons’ felt like it could have been a story from my family, which has been inordinately obsessed with demons and possession. The relationship aspect of this one was confusing and actually detracted from the story for me. I expect the intention was to convey a conflicted relationship, but it came across more as a confused relationship. The mix of a traditional Judeo-Christian approach to demon possession and exorcism combined with Eastern philosophy was unique and brought a nice, fresh touch to this piece.
‘Sky Lit Bargains’ was the most traditional, expected sword-and-sorcery tale. The story had some inconsistencies that would lead me to believe that it had originally been written as a traditional sword-and-sorcery with a hero which was lightly modified to have a heroine to submit to this collection. It was very difficult to get any sense of a relationship other than mistress and servant from this story.
‘D is for Delicious’ was definitely the most “creepy”. It made me stop and think for a moment about visits to the school nurse during my grade school days. And you won’t be able to look at the sweet little ladies at the nursing home the same ever again. But again, the lesbian aspect of this story was a brief implied romance rather than an integral part of the plot.
‘And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness’ had the strongest relationship element of the stories in this volume. The magical part of the narrative was actually more minor in this one, which was a refreshing change. It was also one of the two pieces where the relationship continued past the end of the story.
‘A State of Panic’ was my favorite piece in this collection, combining magic with a “whodunit” story—until I got to the end, which could have used a bit more work. As it was, I found myself transported from a maelstrom with Pan in a woodland glade to a tired row house with just a few words—and not particularly magical ones. I did really enjoy the complication of using magic in a modern, computerized world. The juxtaposition is rather unusual in magic stories and was well handled.
I enjoyed reading this anthology. The variety and quality of the stories was good. My only disappointment was that Hellebore and Rue had the opportunity to lead the charge in lesbian literature. Instead, this is a nice collection of stories of female magickers, with nods to the queer aspect.
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