Edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff
Stories by Ruth Sorrell, C.B. Calsing, Jean Marie Ward, Connie Wilkins, Kelly A. Harmon, Quinn Smythwood, Juliet Kemp, Steve Berman, Lisa Nohealani Morton, Rrain Prior, Sunny Moraine, Rachel Green
Hellebore and Rue is a collection of twelve short stories covering magic and the fantastical, with a couple of futuristic stories thrown in for good measure. As the title suggests, all feature queer women as the main characters although the focus on queer identity and how it relates to the narrative varies widely.
All of the stories prominently feature magic, and most of the writers break out of popularized (overused) magical tropes. There are no sexy vampires, and we get more complex approaches to witchcraft rather than the sort of suburban wicca which is all too common.
Ruth Sorrell's "Counterbalance," features a woman with magical powers, and her partner who hunts magical things, and starts off the collection; it’s a well-crafted story with a reasonably satisfying ending. C.B.Calsing's "Trouble Arrived," set in the Deep South concerns magic of the rich tradition of vodoun. I am going to openly admit that this was one of my two favorites, likely because I grew up in the South and enjoyed the familiarity both in setting and characterization. My other personal favorite was Steve Berman's "D is for Delicious," a wonderful darkly humorous fantasy story. Jean Marie Ward's "Personal Demon" focuses on a tantric sorceress with real powers who often feels as if those powers are dismissed in the wider world; it's a quiet, effective story that has a much deeper subtext exploring identity than is apparent on the first reading. Connie Wilkin's "Windskimmer" is an engrossing traditional fantasy with a strong matriarchal theme and earth magic. It is a richly imagined world that is difficult to fully grasp as the beginning, but well worth the effort. Kelly A. Harmon’s "Sky Lit Bargains" is an enjoyable adventure fantasy tale in which a young woman becomes the warrior in a male-dominated world to avoid a highly unpleasant marital prospect. This could have quite easily been part of a longer work.
Urban fantasy stories are well represented. Quinn Smythwood's "Gloam" tells the engrossing tale of a witch trying to beat her harbinger of death and Julia Kemp's "Witches Have Cats" features a protagonist just discovering that she is a witch (and reads as a prelude to a longer work); both entertain. Rain Prior's "Bridges and Lullabies" stands out for having a truly unique magical system that works well from the beginning to end of the story, and Rachel Green's "A State of Panic" is an enoyable urban fantasy mystery. As per narrative, these stories don’t break new ground in urban fantasy, but for fans of the genre will be entertaining. Plus, urban fantasy, despite it’s prevalence of strong, female characters, rarely includes queer women.
The futuristic stories are the most daring by choosing to create whole new worlds and mix the genres of magic and science fiction. Lisa Nohealani Morton's richly rendered futuristic world in "And out of the Strong Came forth Sweetness" is about a witch and an 'angel' falling in love in a world in which they are on opposing sides. Sunny Moraine's combination fantasy and SF piece, "Thin Spun," was an intriguing blend of South Asian myth and culture that I found fascinating.
There are no dud stories, and most of the contributors are veteran writers with a strong grasp of the genre. I somehow felt the queer characters were a bit too safe most of the time. I would have welcomed more stories centered on diverse radical queer cultures. Admittedly, a queer character is not solely defined by their sexuality, and in a truly egalitarian world no one would even bat an eye over a character’s gender or sexuality. But, this is not the case in the real world, and it is interesting when this is reflected in the fantasy worlds, too. But I can’t complain, because it’s definitely a wonderful collection with bold, diverse, female heroes worth reading.