This collection of historical fantasy short stories is set in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria. A few of the stories have steampunk elements (but not all), and many of the stories are quite dark in tone. Most are entertaining and enjoyable, especially for people interested in the lower classes and historical people with a fantastical twist. As
editors Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow state in the Preface, this collection is more general fantasy than steampunk. Windling explores Britain in the nineteenth century in her Introduction,
revealing how the British became almost obsessed with fantasy, not just in books
but in paintings and plays. At the same time, spiritualism started to flourish and
became popular among the idle rich. These collected stories reflect that atmosphere.
The first story, “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells” by Delia Sherman, is an exception among the stories: it's not set in the Victorian times. Instead, a man who specializes in decoding encryption spells is given Queen Victoria's spell book. Underneath the more mundane entries of everyday spells, he finds Victoria's intimate diary, which starts when she's just fourteen years old.
In “The Fairy Enterprise” by Jeffrey Ford, a hardhearted industrialist dreams about fairies and realizes that he could make money off them.
“From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvelous, Scheduled
for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire)” by Genevieve Valentine
is a collection of letters, journal entries, and pamphlets telling what happened behind the scenes before the fire
that burned down part of the Great Exhibition.
In “The Memory Book” by Maureen McHugh, the Finch family get a new governess, Laura Anne, who comes from a much poorer family and is determined not to return there.
The next story is “La Reine D’Enfer” by Kathe Koja. Handsome male prostitute Pearlie also works as a spy to Davey, his pimp. Then Pearlie meets a man who writes plays.
He starts to dream about becoming an actor and leaving his current life, but Davey has no intention of letting him go.
“For the Briar Rose” by Elizabeth Wein centers on Margaret Burne-Jones and her relationship with her famous painter father, Edward Burne-Jones. Edward has difficulties accepting that his little girl is growing up, and Margaret wants to do something more with her life than what is traditionally
a woman's lot.
The next story is “The Governess” by Elizabeth Bear. Annabelle Reed is a new governess to an upper-class family's three children. She soon finds out that the family has some strange and dangerous secrets.
James P. Blaylock sets “Smithfield” in London as the gas lamps on street corners are being exchanged for the new electrical lamps. The main character wants to photograph those final days in gaslight and gets more than he expected.
“The Unwanted Women of Surrey” by Kaaron Warren is set in a house into which upper-class women have been shut for various reasons, but mostly because their husbands don't want them anymore and the women have to be out of sight.
One of the women does not simply accept her fate.
The main character in “Charged” by Leanna Renee Hieber is struck by lighting, and after that he is able to command electricity. With that gift, he is able to run from his abusive home.
In “Mr. Splitfoot” by Dale Bailey, the main character is Maggie Fox, who claimed that she and her sisters were able to communicate with the spirits. Now her sisters are dead, and Maggie is remembering her life.
“Phosphorus” by Veronica Schanoes is a heart-wrenching story of a girl who works in a factory making matches.
Conditions are hard, and many of the girls are poisoned by the phosphorus. They
call a strike to better their working conditions. The main character has the Phossy Jaw, and she feels like she's rotting on the inside.
“We Without Us Were Shadows” by Catherynne M. Valente centers on the Bronte siblings when they are just children,
dreaming up wild worlds and bloody battles. Then one day they see a man made of books and decide to follow him.
“The Vital Importance of the Superficial” by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer is written in letters. Charlotte Fleming's family was having a dinner party when her father's experiment misfired and his guests had to leave quickly.
One of the guests left something behind which starts an alarming series of events.
“The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown” by Jane Yolen centers on old Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister, Mr. Disraeli. The Queen doesn't care for Mr. Disraeli, and he has plans of his own.
“A Few Twigs He Left Behind” by Gregory Maguire is a continuation of Charles Dickens'
A Christmas Carol. Scrooge's experiences with the three ghosts have mellowed him to the point that he has married and has children. He has also spread his wealth to the poor,
but now Scrooge has died on Christmas Day, leaving behind two young orphan children.
“Their Monstrous Minds” by Tanith Lee is a retelling of Frankenstein.
“Estella Saves the Village” by Theodora Goss is set in a small village where Miss Havisham and her young adopted daughter, Estelle, live along with Mrs. D'Urberville, and Mr. and Mrs. Holmes. Estelle notices
one day that strange black spots are appearing everywhere, and she's the only one who sees them.
Most of the stories here are enjoyable, but few stand out.