Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and that’s what you’re getting. Additionally, one of the stories in the collection I’m reviewing reads as kind of not cool to me when it comes to genital reveals so I’m going to talk about the story to make sure that people interested in this book know what to expect.
A rebellious child identifies with Maleficent instead of Sleeping Beauty. Best friends Anna and Corry share one last morning on Earth. A solitary woman inherits a penny arcade haunted by a beautiful stranger. A prep-school student requires more than luck when playing dice with a faerie. Ladies who lunch—dividing one last bite of dessert—delve into new dimensions of quantum politeness. At summer camp, a young girl discovers the heartbreak of forbidden love.
Whether on a habitat on Mars or in a boardinghouse in London, discover Ellen Klages’ wicked, wondrous adventures full of cheeky wit, empathy, and courage.
There are fifteen short stories in Ellen Klages’ newest short story collection Wicked Wonders.
Out of those fifteen, thirteen were basically everything I ever wanted in a short story. Two were… not. One of those two was a story that just didn’t catch me while the other was a story that had me invested right until it chose to reveal a characters’ genitals for what feels like shock value and then proceed to misgender them for the (short) remainder of the story. It was quite a disappointing experience.
Which sucks, because I otherwise love Ellen Klages’ writing. I’m working my way through her Tor.com novella Passing Strange, taking my time because hello I adore narratives set in or revolving around the 1920s. I think she’s a brilliant, talented writer who knows how to use words to set up mental pictures so pretty that they belong in a museum. But I mean… that second to last story sure is a doozy…
Well, let’s get started!
The Education of a Witch
This is my favorite story in the collection. Straight up. The second I finished reading this story in the middle of the night, I had to fight the urge to wake my eleven-year-old niece up and demand that she read it with me. I did that the next day and it was amazing. “The Education of a Witch” is a cute but dark story set in the POV of a little girl named Lizzy who, in 1959 after watching Sleeping Beauty at the drive-through with her parents, falls in love with Maleficent and comes to see the witch as her lone confidant in the world.
I loved this story because I was Lizzy. Or at least, I could have been Lizzy if my parents paid just a little less attention to me when I was growing up. It was so easy to empathize with Lizzy and honestly, I rooted for her the entire time because I’ve had to deal with the new baby in the house taking all of the attention and it SUCKED. (I have a niece a little younger than me and I was 5 when she came to live with us.)
What was kind of awesome about “The Education of a Witch” is that Klages never actually tells us whether there’s real magic in Lizzy’s life near the end of the story or if, like most small children, she’s just wielding a powerful sense of imagination. I kind of love not knowing whether or not Lizzie’s Carrie-like tendencies are shored up by actual powers.
If you read nothing else from this anthology, read this story.
This is a bittersweet story about a teenager about to leave everything she knows in order to travel with her family on a generation ship that won’t reach its final destination until centuries after she’s dead. If you’re not up to date on what a generation ship is, it’s basically an ark a la Noah that transports hopefuls across space to a world that their descendants will hopefully colonize. Many times, in science fiction, the ship never makes it to its final destination. Or even out of the galaxy they started in.
They bum me out.
However, that works for “Amicae Aeternum” because it’s not a happy story. It’s a hard hitting story. It’s a “this is the last time these kids will see each other in person” kind of story but it’s so dang sweet. Corry and her friend Anna are so close and they absolutely do what I would’ve done in their shoes. From Corry’s lists about her future to Anna’s very sweet present, this is a story that kind of hurts by the end, but it’s a good hurt.
Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox
This story is so dang science-y.
It took me a couple of reads to get what was going on, but once I got it, I got it. “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” is another story centered on friendship but it’s also a story that’s lowkey about breaking the world with math. I mean, that’s what I got from Midge and Annabel’s back and forth over dividing the brownie into smaller and smaller pieces.
I thought it was weirdly… cute.
Singing on a Star
“Singing on a Star” is creepy.
Straight up. It’s more horror than anything even though it doesn’t look that way at first glance. At first, this story looks like it’s going to be a simple “sleepover gone horribly wrong” story which I was like unsure about, but then it somehow got more messed up than I was expecting?
I’m talking alternate earths, creepy strangers, and a cycle of strange and stressful that just won’t quit.
This story is unsettling because it deals with a little girl who finds out that her friend has a secret involving another earth and a strange old man. It’s not an easy story to read and if you’re not 100% sure that you can handle something that ends with one currently missing child… skip it.
“Hey, Presto!” was another favorite story in this anthology.
Main character Polly Wardlow is a brain, a girl that tells herself that she’s not like her father who heads up what she sees as a silly magic show. After a letter from her father arrives that changes her summer plans drastically, she winds up getting to spend a summer with the very man that she doesn’t exactly like.
Like many of the stories in Wicked Wonders, “Hey, Presto!” is set in . While I’m not super sure when it takes place, I’m assuming that it’s sometime between world wars and that’s lowkey one of my favorite time periods for fiction. Even fiction that ostensibly has nothing to do with the wars.
I think my favorite thing about this story and what made it a favorite at all, is the way that Polly’s relationship with her father evolves once he asks her for help with his show and she starts to explore the way that their two worlds aren’t so different after all.
The ending is basically the actual best (I’m talking about Polly saving her dad’s life by using the stagecraft that she’d picked up while living with him).
10/10 so cute, would highly recommend.
Echoes of Aurora
I’ve been calling this “the queer tree story” since I finished reading it.
I love the language in this story. When Rory and Jo meet (again?), the language Klages uses to describe Rory’s eyes and the way that they impact Jo is like… out of this world. Peep this gorgeous description folks:
Rory stepped into another bit of sunlight. Her eyes were green too, flecked with bits of gold. They tickled a fragment of memory with no context to anchor it, and Jo felt herself nod.
This is another bittersweet story but it’s also so beautiful.
Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s
“Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s” is such a fun story.
After St. Cecilia student Rachel winds up being trapped in a series of games against the mysterious Mrs. Llewelyn, she has to use her bran in order to save herself and her friend (girlfriend?) Anna. I loved the Jumanji-esque experience of following along as Rachel matches wits with a literal faerie queen.
And the ending was super satisfying.
“Caligo Lane” is a story about magic, cartography, and the search for a missing sister.
While I felt that “Caligo Lane” was a bit too slow for me, this is a story where Klages’ talents as a wordsmith really shine. It’s beautiful prose coupled with incredible descriptive language and I loved the experience of reading it.
So many of the stories in Wicked Wonders leave me with a profound sense of melancholy and seriously, “Goodnight Moons” is no exception. This is a story about an astronaut who finds out that she’s pregnant on her way to Mars and how she and her crew deal with her pregnancy and later childbirth.
It’s not necessarily a sad story. I mean, I didn’t cry once while reading. But despite how sweet it is, I couldn’t get over the ending and what it meant for the main character and her daughter and it just feels… upsetting (but in a good way, I promise).
This was another science-y story, by the way. If you enjoyed The Martian, this will appeal to your tastes.
Gone to the Library
“Gone to the Library” is totally mathematical!
Izzy is my kind of main character and I adore her to pieces. Her devotion to her new friend Bibber, a young boy subject to the threat of institutionalization because of developmental disabilities, is awesome and intense. It literally leads to her trying to change the world with magic numbers.
Unlike the first story in the collection, the presence of magic is more explicit. There’s no “well, was this magic or imagination” because well… it’s both.
This is a sweet story!
Except no, this is a story about the wonderful and kind of scary Mrs. Hudson, a hero in her own right and a character that doesn’t usually get a chance to shine. But shine she does in this story.
The one thing I can’t quite get is whether or not Mrs. Hudson is doing something to her neighbor Vivian…
And despite the fact that I wouldn’t trust any of her food not to kill me, Mrs. Hudson in this story is a fantastic character and I honestly found myself wanting to read more about her in this kind of setting.
Sponda the Suet Girl
This was the first of the two stories that I straight up didn’t like.
Unlike the next story in the collection that bugged me for different reasons, “Sponda the Suet Girl” simply wasn’t interesting to me.
And here we have the story that made me really frustrated with this collection.
At first, “Woodsmoke” looks like it’s going to be a cute queer historical romance with gender non-conforming girls hanging out and falling in love. Like I felt that shit in my soul. Set in 1963, “Woodsmoke” revolves around Peete Maas and her time at Camp Wokanda that summer. It’s an experience that introduces her to Margaret “Maggie” Wendover.
Maggie’s portrayal as a character isn’t a problem until the last part of the story where, after Maggie goes to the camp nurse for stomach pains, it’s revealed that she has a penis and the pain she was feeling was basically super late-stage puberty. With the genital reveal, Maggie is no longer referred to with she/her pronouns and appears to be misgendered for the last page or two of the story.
Problems with this narrative include how it’s never about Maggie.
The last part of this story is entirely about Peete’s reaction to Maggie’s body and her identity.
At the very least, a story about Maggie discovering this aspect of her body while also discovering her intimate feelings for Peete would’ve been a bit less… icky. I mean I’m not an expert, but I honestly don’t know that this story would be anything but upsetting to intersex readers and trans readers for whom a genital reveal like this would be beyond harmful to them.
I get that this is historical fiction and that this is ~period typical~, but I think that this story, the only one in the collection that hadn’t been previously published, should have maybe stayed unpublished or should’ve been reworked to be or have more of Maggie’s story. Because it loses so much by and because of that reveal.
The Scary Ham
There’s not that much to say about “The Scary Ham” that isn’t on the label.
This is a light(ish) story about a ham that the main characters’ father kept hanging up in the basement for twenty years until his death causes his daughter to pull it down and try to get rid of it.
I mean… it’s funny as heck, but it’s also about a ham.
A very scary ham.
All in all, Wicked Wonders was almost everything I wanted.
I’m glad that “Woodsmoke” was the second to last story in the anthology because honestly, my enjoyment of the book would’ve vanished had it appeared at the start. I still do think that Ellen Klages is an amazing writer and I love that she has so many clearly queer stories in this book, but at the same time…