The October Report: Queer Faerie Fiction (pt 1)

An unofficial #FaeFriday post.

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Oak and bloody ASH, that was a jaw-droppingly mind-blowing Toby adventure. I KNOW, I say that EVERY time, but it’s TRUER THAN EVER!!! This installment was so epic, in fact, that I’m going to take a page from last year and take some more time to get my thoughts together. In the meantime, here’s a vague excerpt from my chat with sj (shared with her permission).

Screenshot of my Messenger chat with sj.  The text inside the purple bubble reads:  "Just finished A Killing Frost.  Haven't read the end novella yet because I want to read Heaps of Pearl first but anyway HOOOOLY F***!!!!!!!!!!!

Then there are the following emojis:  

First, there are five screaming emojis with their hands on their cheeks, their eyes totally white, and the tops of their heads a pale blue.

Then there's a deer emoji followed by a six-dot elipsis.  Then there are seven grinning emojis, a white cake, a mermaid, and a festive emoji wearing a party hat and blowing into a party horn.

A five-dot elipsis follows that, and then a grinning cat emoji, a fairy, another white cake, and four question marks.

Sj's response, in the pale grey bubble, is "Hahahahahaha."

Now, then. I’d like to adjust my October Report tradition a bit, to focus on Toby-adjacent topics rather than necessarily the novels themselves. In this case, I’ve taken the opportunity to begin my Tsundoku Challenge by revisiting a modern faery tale collection I started reading years ago but never got around to finishing.

Photo of the book So Fey: Queer fairy fiction, edited by Steve Berman, placed on a glass desk, next to a lit medium-sized candle, seen from slightly above.  The candle is painted on the outside to look like silver birch bark.  The streaks in the silver are transparent, so you can see the glow from the flame. 

There's a small faery figure in the left-bottom corner of the window, behind the desk -- it's the only part of the window you can see.  The figure's head is tilted down so their wide-brimmed burlap hat covers their whole face.  They wear a pale orange top with long sleeves, and pale orange shoes.  In between are two long, spindly sea-green legs.

It was long enough ago that I decided to start from the beginning, and as of this post, I’m a third of the way through.

Steve Berman, ed. So Fey: Queer fairy fiction. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2009.

First third rating: 4 out of 5 color-shifting knots of hair from the Queen of Elfland.

Playlist: Bookwyrms. I’ve discovered/created the most spellbinding autumn reading playlist. It is pure, dreamy ambient awesomeness that consists, so far, of two Youtube videos by Autumn Cozy and one by Cozy Autumn. For the past few nights, I’ve been spirited away by the sounds of steady rain and a crackling Woodwick candle, creaking houses and pouring tea, forest breezes and Celtic music, and haunted houses surrounded by even more haunted woods.

I seriously feel like I’m sitting by a spooky campfire, wandering through a sparkling forest showered by golden leaves, or curled up in the hygge-tastic reading nook of an old house on a rainy day. HIGHLY. RECOMMEND.

Section break image.  A woman with pale skin and dark hair hides behind an autumnal red and gold goblin mask.  Only her right eye peeks out from above the mask, and the left hand that holds it is decorated with a single ruby or garnet ring on the fourth finger.  

There are pale bronze leaves bordering her face, and a spindly, parchment-white faery peeks out from the bottom-right corner of the image, sticking their arms straight up to touch the mask.

Berman’s edited collection strings together a garland of gay, lesbian, and (at least one) bisexual faery tales by modern bards both experienced and new. He reclaims the word “fairy” as it was apparently self-applied by a secret 19th-century gay men’s organization in New York (admittedly, the reference Berman refers to is from an 1896 article in the American Journal of Psychology that was biased very much against homosexuality) and muses on how the original mythological concept might serve as a metaphor for some queer experiences.

FYI: when I use the word “faery” or “faeries” in this post, I’m referring only to the mythological concept, not the slang. As I see it, the faery characters in this book represent only themselves, not homosexuality or bisexuality as a whole. And, conversely, any common characteristics are a reflection of Berman’s idea of Faerie (or, perhaps, parts of human nature as a whole), not a commentary on what it means to be queer.

There are tales by Holly Black, Christopher Barzak, Delia Sherman, Richard Bowes, Cassandra Clare, and eighteen more — including two by Berman himself. So far, these storytellers are successfully enchanting me, while also keeping me sensibly wary of the Good Folk.

Many of the faeries in the first third of this collection are ethically ambiguous beings. They generally mean well — they’re all members of the Seelie Court — but some of them seem surprised by the concept of fully-informed consent. Some of them start out as entitled as the purebloods at whom Toby is constantly rolling her eyes. They do genuinely try to adjust their methods when they realize their beloveds aren’t having it…though some are more enthusiastic about it than others.

The Queen of Elfland, for example, enchants her mortal love interest into the equivalent of an intoxicated state — which, the latter is quick to assure us, doesn’t technically make her act against her own will, but merely reduces her fears and inhibitions — and considers her choice to ultimately honor said mortal’s freedom a bitterly generous act: “I hope you understand that my choice not to [magically compel you to my side] is itself a gift, the only way you have offered me to show you that I love you” (pg. 97). How…romantic? :-/

In other words, these aren’t all blissful love stories. This is no Queer Utopia; relationships in this magic-touched world, as in our own, are realistically complicated and they don’t all have unambiguously happy endings.

Not to worry — there are enough stories that do fall closer to the Happily Ever After end to make this a generally cozy read so far.

Besides the above-mentioned “Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland,” these are my favorite stories in the first third of the book:

Close-up of the mask and hand from above.

“A Scent of Roses,” by Catherine Lundoff.

I consider this a brilliant companion to the last few Toby novels. Lundoff turns the ballad of Tam Lin in a very different direction than McGuire. In her version, [spoiler alert for the Toby books 12-14] Janet’s intervention in Queen Maeve’s Halloween Ride doesn’t throw all of Faerie into chaos — only Janet’s own heart. Is she really meant to live Happily Ever After with Tam, or does she crave something much wilder and less orthodox? What was the Faerie Queen really offering her at the crossroad?

This is one of the more comforting, fully-sweet tales in which the faery lover invites rather than seduces their mortal beloved and everyone involved finds the path that is best for them.

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“A Bird of Ice,” by Craig Laurance Gidney.

Ryuichi isn’t quite as devoted to monastic life or teachings as his superiors would wish, but as a quiet and dreamy young man, he has no other prospects. He certainly tries, but when an unusual swan nearly drowns in the monastery’s garden one winter day, Ryuichi begins to show a truly concerning level of distraction and deviation. Are his new thoughts and feelings truly immoral, or is he honoring an older, more Nature-based tradition?

This is a more ambiguously-ended story, but in a lovely way; it’s happy — or at least serene — but there’s no clear sense of what’s going to happen after. Ryuichi could reach several different conclusions from his experience with the spirit world, and it’s up to the reader to decide what exactly he’s going to do.

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“Charming, a Tale of True Love,” by Ruby deBrazier and Cassandra Clare.

This is basically a queer twist on Disney’s Brave. A faery princess doesn’t want to be the prize at the end of a contest. She feels nothing for her would-be husbands until a very unorthodox knight crashes through her rose bushes, declaring his undying love. There’s something oddly familiar about Sir Blythe, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. All Ivy knows is that, for the first time, she actually kind of hopes there will be a winner.

This is another story in which the lover realizes and genuinely accepts that their beloved deserves to make a fully informed and totally free decision. Because marriage by choice is so much more satisfying than one tainted by even a hint of obligation.

Close-up of the mask and hand.

How are your own delightful Tsundoku battles going, Bookwyrms? Any books you’re kind of glad you waited to read, because they’re so eerily well-aligned with your present circumstances and knowledge?

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Credits:

Section break images from Brian Froud’s World of Faerie.

10 comments

  1. Oh wow! I know a few of those authors! And I didn’t know this book existed! I feel the need yuko check it out after your awesome review! Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

  2. Sounds like a great read! I had never heard of these stories before. It makes me want to curl up with a hot cup of tea and read. I don’t know what I want to read, but I know I have plenty of books to chose from!

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