Monday, March 10, 2014

Where the Literary Meets the Fantastic: Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells (Part One)

There are times when I’m ninety percent certain I want to read a book based on its cover alone. Reading is about visual consumption, so it makes sense that while covers are not the only thing guiding our literary sensibilities, they play a large part in it. Covers also influence a reader’s initial perception of a story: we can guess what the story will be about, what genre the book belongs to, and sometimes, who the main character is or where the story will be set, all from the depiction on the cover. I love this about books even as I understand sometimes I’m hoodwinked into going for books that are within my comfort zone, which is very much, as Juliet E. McKenna phrased it, grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. Sometimes, though, especially within fantasy, covers can inspire readers to find magic in unseen literary opportunities.

The cover for Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, did this precisely for me: it went beyond merely interesting me to read the anthology. As soon as I was able to get my hands on this book, I devoured it, eager to read how modern fantasy writers enlivened one of my favorite literary genres. I have a deep appreciation for Victorian literature because it was the last point in history where the bulk of Western imagination was suggestible to forms of thought outside of pure logic and science. Terri Windling’s introduction is one of the best analyses on the subject I have ever read: she discusses the rise of strict morality and wild bohemianism that created an exquisite tension, which allowed for the rise of spiritualism and revival of fairy culture. The Victorians seemed to be capturing nostalgia in the face of industrialism while simultaneously exploring new technology that gave them an outlet to express their love for magic. Windling’s introduction set the tone for the rest of the anthology, exploring this rich vein of magic and history.

This anthology might be seen, in some lights, as a way of rewriting history. Factual history is where many of the stories start, particularly with fascination with Queen Victoria. However, history and fiction are intertwined as inspiration for these stories, in the same way that the Victorians used magic to inspire their own works of art, literature, and theater. The inspiration was a jumping off point that allowed for writers to address problems that had plagued the Victorians of yore: the lost perspective of women and the problematic nature of strict morality. One of the best stories, “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes, also addressed a modern problem: how in the rise of steampunk, we are sometimes prone to sentimentalize the Victorian age, when the very structure of the bourgeois, tea parties and propriety was based on society that rife with social inequality.

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells is an anthology that allows contemporary readers to do as the Victorians did, to appreciate the blurriness between fact and fiction in fantasy. Whether reveling in nostalgia as in James P. Blaylock’s “Smithfield” or skewering morality on a stick in “Their Monstrous Minds” by Tanith Lee, the anthology brings much illumination to what is normally seen as a stodgy genre. The second part of this post will look into two stories from the anthology in more detail, seeing where magic brings light to the realm of fiction.

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