San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.
Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where mystery, science, and art intersect.
Why yes, I did buy this book purely for its beautiful beautiful cover (I actually put down a copy of Foundryside to buy this one instead.) Passing Strange crossed my radar when I saw the cover on the nominee list for the Nebulas two years ago, which told me it was probably hella gay and very little else. Buying the book, I still didn’t know much other than that the main characters were probably lesbians and boy was I right.
Through this novella, we follow the lives of three queer women navigating their way through 1940s San Francisco. There’s Helen, a Chinese lawyer/club dancer, Haskel, semi-famous painter known for her pulp fiction covers, and Emily, a newcomer who’s introduced to the two through mutual acquaintances. Through certain circumstances, Haskel and Emily start seeing each other early on and much of this book is a slice of life following of their interactions.
Characters aside, what really makes this book unique is the setting. 1940s San Francisco has its aesthetic and charm (see: the cover), which is explored quite well as we follow the characters. However, it also has its downsides: the racism and Orientalism that was occurring nationwide, but especially San Francisco due to the number of Asian immigrants, as well as the abysmal treatment of queer women during the time. The book does not shy away from those topics and while some terms used may be triggering to readers today, I found it extremely powerful that Passing Strange, not only addressed those topics, but showed how women of the era thrived despite their oppressors.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Not only do we get a fantastic depiction of the lives of three queer women in 1940s San Francisco, we also learn about the darker side of that era and how these women were able to thrive nonetheless.
/r/Fantasy 2019-2020 Bingo Squares:
- Slice of Life Fantasy (hard mode)
- SFF Novella