Happy Official Start of the Christmas Season, Bookwyrms! Here I am on a Sunday morning, sitting under a red and green quilt, sipping a homemade winter spice latte (which is basically pumpkin spice relabeled…don’t we use the same spices for gingerbread?), listening to Loreena McKennitt’s holiday songs.
It’s still November, so I want to sneak in the start of a new Booksgiving segment. Every year around this time, I’m going to honor the spirit of Thanks-Giving by reading or re-reading a book I already own. This year, I’ve started my Tsundoku Challenge (explained here) with a collection of queer faery tales (see part one here), and today I’m going to discuss the middle section.
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Steve Berman, ed. So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2009.
Middle Section rating: 3 out of 5 gifts from a very jealous ocean
Playlist: YouTube music/ambience
- A Night in the Enchanted Forest ASMR
- Autumn Forest Ambience [Music by Adrian von Ziegler…]
- Campfire by the Sea
- Ocean Sounds (no music)
- Cozy Christmas Coffee Shop
Soooo…as grateful as I still am to have discovered this book, the middle section gave me even more mixed feelings than the first. First, it’s riddled with typos and weird formatting. And the faeries (plus one human) are still having issues with dubious consent. I DNF-ed one story because it had outright non-consent.
I get that believable, three-dimensional characters can’t be moral paragons, certainly not at the start of the story — the point of a good story is to see the characters learn and evolve. If they already know better, they can’t show us how to become like them. That said, I do have my limits and I’m just not into love stories that start with a kidnapping or any other form of threat/coercion.
I mean, ok, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a huge exception, but at the risk of sounding like an apologist, Belle freely volunteers to stay in the castle (well, it was that or let her father die in a cell) and the Beast…um…ok, there’s that “EAT WITH ME OR STAAAAAAARVE!!!” moment, but…um…it’s more of a tantrum than a real threat or binding law…? IT’S COMPLICATED, MAEVE-DAMMIT!
Yeah, I’m gonna do a post sometime about how complicated a character can be before we condemn them and/or the story for portraying that person in an ultimately positive light.
In the meantime, let’s dive into some more queer faery tales!
NSFW Warning: these stories contain erotic and other adult situations, as well as references to drugs and alcohol.
“The Coat of Stars,” by Holly Black
I mentioned this one in my Triple Creature Feature post back in 2015. It’s a wonderful twist on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” about a young man who goes Into the Woods to rescue his childhood lover from the Faeries. The queen has enchanted Lyle into obliviousness, and Rafe has to enchant her right back with his near-magical tailoring skills just to get a chance of waking his boyfriend.
Like “A Scent of Roses,” this is one of the sweeter stories in the collection, with a satisfyingly happy ending.
Possible Trigger Warning, though, for references to suicide.
“How the Ocean Loved Margie,” by Laurie J. Marks.
This is my top favorite so far, even though it’s bittersweet AF (with an emphasis on the bitter). Beyond the fact that it’s a Selkie tale, I love that it also includes a character who’s gender- and sex-fluid (think of the merfolk in The Deep).
Margie has decided to go properly mad (her word) and takes a year off to disappear on an island off the coast of Maine where, come the bitter autumn, she plans to give birth alone, surviving in the meantime on the ocean’s mercy.
And the Ocean is merciful…maybe even smitten? Margie finds gifts every morning on the beach, from full-grown mackerels to sacks of potatoes and even a tub of margarine. Then, when the Ocean’s mood suddenly changes, Margie is saved by a strange and somewhat familiar woman who lives in a hidden shack on an unfamiliar stretch of the beach. Soon, the two women are shacking up more figuratively and planning for the future.
But Gayle is a controversial figure on Skerry Island and one of the locals warns Margie to stay away from her. Surely there’s nothing to his hysterical ramblings, though…or is Margie the one going insane, for real? Can she trust some wild woman with an even wilder backstory to take care of her and the baby?
Like I said, this isn’t exactly a Happily Ever After tale, but I love the way it updates the Seal Wife motif and it is kind of fun to (vicariously) live with Margie in a hidden beach house on a Selkie-inhabited island.
“Isis in Darkness,” by Christopher Barzak.
It’s like if The Gypsy Game had been entirely about Toby’s time as a runaway, minus the attempt to frame it as a modern form of Roma culture. And had been infused with queer X-Men vibes. Isis is a runaway who’s accepted into a secret society of Orphyns — queer teens with magic powers. They’re hiding out in an abandoned church, safe from the Nobodies who fear and threaten them. But one night near Halloween, one of the Nobodies takes a shot and Isis has to decide whether to run again or use her powers to save a friend.
This story has some intriguing spiritual musings that I’m going to have to mull over myself for a while. Where do the Fae (or superhumans?) fit into the world? Were they created by the same forces that created other humans? Also, Barzak re-interprets the word “womyn” to celebrate rather than exclude queer women, which earns this story an extra ten points for Orphyn
“The Kings of Oak and Holly,” by Kenneth D. Woods
This story has such a unique view on seasonal death and rebirth. The Kings of Oak and Holly are brothers locked in an endless cycle, each killing the other and watching him re-grow between May Day and Halloween, until a fascinatingly lovely human visits the park and sits in the Oak King’s embrace.
The rules of Faerie are rigid as iron: none of the Fae may give themselves fully to a mortal or they will both suffer. But Jack can’t stay away from Danny, and Danny keeps pleading for a full communion until one night, they can’t hold back anymore.
I consider this one vaguely dub-con because Danny keeps begging Jack for sex despite getting the same answer every time. Jack voluntarily does everything but fully consummate their relationship, ifyaknowwhatImean (I mean, they basically have sex but stop just before The Moment). But during one of those sessions, Danny pushes past Jack’s boundaries and even though Jack does choose to follow along, it’s still a bit sketchy.
Ultimately, I do think this is a very bittersweet story (equal emphasis on bitter and sweet) that ends on a slightly hopeful note. I felt for all the characters (except the Faerie Queen, who’s a total dingleberry) and wanted them to live happily ever after in some form.
“Detox,” by Elspeth Potter.
Hoooo boy, this one’s trippy and uncomfortable. Maria lives a literally charmed life, kept eternally young and sexy by her own personal brownie. All she needs to do is leave her benefactor a Thank You dinner every night and voila! Instant makeover! But after one especially wild night of clubbing, Maria adds something extra to her nightly gift…and provokes some serious supernatural wrath.
How far will she go to make it up to her magical make-up artist?
Sooooo the concept is clever and the ending is effectively creepy. But there’s a disturbingly glossed-over reference to rape (not related to the main plot) that seems thrown in for cheap edginess or random “realism” (see Seanan McGuire’s view on that). And there’s a definite power imbalance between Maria and the brownie that is never resolved. I do realize this story isn’t meant to be romantic — it’s supposed to make you feel weird — but it could have absolutely dropped the cheap rape reference, at the very least.
“From Asphalt to Emeralds and Moonlight,” by Aynjel Kaye
It starts with a faery princess competing with her brother to literally hunt down an unwilling mortal and then forcibly and aggressively kissing the bewildered victim just to piss off the prince.
That’s a solid “Neeeext!” for me.
So! I swear this really was a Bookish Gratitude post! I’m going to finish the collection and hope that the last third has more of a sweet and sparkly tone… a mortal can dream, right?
What are your views on complicated characters, Bookwyrms? Anything you consider a deal-breaker? Which of your owned books are you most thankful for this year?
Nostalgia Critic Christmas GIF from tenor.
No Hobbit GIF from tenor.