Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Review Tuesday: Witches, Princesses and Women at Arms -- #lesfic #fairytales #romance


Book cover

Witches, Princesses and Women at Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales
Edited by Sacchi Green
Cleis Press, 2017

Fairy tales are not really for kids. They capture the archetypes that define our human experience: the strong, valiant, virtuous hero; the trickster who distracts or tempts him, delighting in chaos for its own sake; the malevolent witch, thriving on a diet of cruelty and succulent children; the sweet, patient heroine imprisoned in the tower, awaiting the happy salvation she deserves; the wise mage, offering guidance and occasionally tipping the scales in favor of the good. Tests and quests await the hero and heroine, who must prove their worthiness for the happily-ever-after that is the sine qua non of (Western) fairy tales. Ultimately evil is vanquished and virtue prospers, reassuring us of the order in the world.

Fairy tales touch us emotionally, partly because of this satisfying resolution, but at least in part because they speak to our simpler, less civilized selves. Often they take us back to our primeval wildness, leaving us to wander in trackless forests populated by beasts and magical beings.

Thus, it is not surprising that many of the old stories have been given erotic interpretations. Sex is a force of nature, as well as a kind of magic. Most erotic fairy tales, however, have maintained the traditional gender distinctions of their sources. The brave, energetic princes are male; the yielding, nurturing princesses are female. The archetypes have become stereotypes.

Sacchi Green’s new anthology Witches, Princesses and Women at Arms offers a welcome exception. The book collects thirteen (I wonder if the magical number was intentional) marvelous stories in which it is women who carry the swords, complete the quests, cast the spells, outwit the villains, and rescue captives from terrible fates.

A few of the contributions, like Michael Jones’s “The Miller’s Daughter” and Emily Byrne’s “Toads, Diamonds and the Occasional Pearl”, are riffs on familiar tales. I particularly enjoyed Brey Willows’s “Penthouse 31”, a retelling of Rapunzel in which the long-haired captive escapes to join a muscular window washer who recognizes her imprisonment. This is the only story in the book that features a contemporary setting; I found the change refreshing.

Many stories feature new plots and characters, though they offer traditional fairy tale themes and environments. Salome Wilde’s “The Princess’s Princess” is one of my favorites. A spoiled and petulant princess is forced to serve as hostess to the visiting daughter of a neighboring king, and discovers she has a lot to learn from the woman she initially resents. Annabeth Leong’s “The Mark and the Caul” is a delicate, complex exploration of what it means to be different. Sacchi Green spins old myths about trolls into a surprising, original yarn in “Trollwise”. “The Prize of the Willow” by H.N. Janzen portrays the lifelong love between a human woman and a dryad.

Most of the sexual activity in these tales is sensual rather than explicit, in keeping with their dream-like tone. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of heat. Two of the most exquisite examples are A.D.R. Forte’s “The Warrior’s Choice” and Lea Daley’s “The Sorceress of Solisterre”. Both stories do a beautiful job evoking the ache of unconsummated desire, the magnetic attraction between kindred spirits, and the transcendent release when that fated connection finally occurs in the flesh.

Overall, this is a fine anthology, another feather in veteran editor Sacchi Green’s cap. My only complaint is leveled at the publisher. I’ve worked with Cleis myself and I know they strictly limit the story length. In my opinion, this would have been an even stronger collection if there had been more variety in this regard. All the stories are on the short side (probably less than 4000 words). Although the authors do an excellent job spinning fairly complicated plots within these constraints, I would have enjoyed more variation.

If you enjoy lesbian fiction with a lyrical bent, I highly recommend this book.

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