Lethe Press (2011)
Reviewed by Tehani Wessely
The tagline of this anthology reads, “Tales of queer women and magic” – it is a book filled with stories of witches and women of power, set in worlds mundane, fantastical and future, where the central characters just happen to be lesbians. A fascinating idea, and a well executed one. I enjoyed all the stories within its pages, almost without exception, something that rarely happens with an anthology.
One of the more interesting aspects of the collection was how mainstream it really is. For a book that has as its central premise magic and witches, from a publisher that specialises in titles of gay and lesbian interest, it was almost surprising to find that the lesbian element is not overt. Unlike the plot of the Twelfth Planet Press novella Horn (by Peter M Ball), it is never central to the premise of the story being told, rather, it is simply another aspect of the character/s. Having said that, it works very well. It does not need to be an overt aspect, to be a representation of sexuality – this in itself helps normalise sexual orientations.
The anthology opens with “Counterbalance” by Ruth Sorrell – not one of my favourites I’m afraid, and not, I think, one of the stronger stories in the collection. It follows Riley, a powerful witch who finds herself battling a goddess. The story reflects the three aspects of womanhood (maiden, mother, crone), and the strength of love.
This is followed by “Trouble Arrived” by CB Calsing, a story with a voodoo element, encasing a tale of revenge and escape and then by one of the strongest of the book, “Personal Demons” by Jean Marie Ward. Ward sets up an almost real world scenario, with a nurse (whose lover has inadvertently outed her as a witch) being asked to help a child who has been possessed. The ending of this story is very powerful.
I also loved “The Windskimmer” by Connie Wilkins, set it a fantasy (or possibly a future) world, where a pair of old lovers must work together to save the planet from magic (or science?) gone wrong.
“Sky Lit Bargains” by Kelly A Harmon takes us to a Viking land, where a warrior woman must battle a wyvern, with the help of a witch, to save herself from her sister’s husband. Perhaps a little overly complicated, but a great read.
“Gloam” by Quinn Smythwood takes as its premise the idea that witches can see corpse shadows, future ghosts that show a death, and examines what might happen if it is the witch’s own corpse shadow she sees. Recommended.
As one of the few stories that has a solid urban fantasy feel to it, “Witches Have Cats” by Juliet Kemp was a really enjoyable read. Laura is forced to come to terms with the fact that she is, in fact, a witch, having cursed her ex-lover with boils. When her friend is kidnapped, Laura and her faithful companion Jasper (not a cat!) must use her new power to save her. I would definitely read a novel set in this world, with these characters!
Of all the stories in the book, I thought that “D is for Delicious” by Steve Berman was the odd one out. Nothing at all wrong with the writing or the story, but with its focus on a more traditional fairytale at the heart, and a rather nasty style of witch, it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the anthology.
“And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” is an interesting story, again blending SF with fantasy. Lisa Nohealani Morton takes us to a world where being a witch is punishable by death, where law is enforced by “angels” – so what happens when an angel falls in love with a witch?
I liked the idea of “Bridges and Lullabies” by Rrain Prior, but was a little put off by the style in this story where a woman of power is chasing down a rogue elemental. “Thin Spun” by Sunny Moraine is another SF-nal story, which although it had an interesting premise, was one I didn’t find all that compelling.
However, the final story, “A State of Panic” by Rachel Green, was pitch perfect for me – another real world scenario, this one being very British, where a female police officer finds herself back in her home town. Anna Wilde is a no-nonsense sergeant, working hard to stand up for her rights as an officer, not just a woman in uniform, and quietly using her power to assist her investigations. Another character I’d happily read a novel about!
In all, Hellebore and Rue is a quality collection based around an original, thoughtful concept. I’ll be looking out for more from these authors, and from Lethe Press!