Leading up to the flour war in France in 1775, “Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson was a wonderful mix of the historical and speculative, which is exactly the premise of the anthology in which it is found, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History.
Here we meet Claire, a woman working in a brothel run by Mémé, who has all the women specifically paint sigils on the roofs of each other’s rooms before entertaining guests, especially when she lights the red lamps that let the clients know the women are menstruating. Mémé is an enigma at first, and Claire herself is more concerned with her own love for Isabella—another of the women in the brothel—rather than the madam. But as she starts to realize the sigils they paint do seem to affect real world change, and the changes outside the brothel become all the more violent and terrifying, Claire wonders if she might use the same magic to do the one thing she most desperately wants: to keep Isabella safe.
Johnson’s touches with the magic are brilliantly done here, and I really enjoyed both the slow reveals and the dark turns in the narrative. More, the story manages to be dark and gritty in its beginning and yet does deliver an ending with enough of hope to it to not be overwhelming or entirely maudlin. That’s a huge deal for me as a reader, as I’m so completely done with queer tragedies, especially in historical settings.