Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: Sleeping Beauty, Indeed & Other Lesbian Fairytales

 Sleeping Beauty, Indeed & Other Lesbian Fairytales is an anthology of lesbian retellings of traditional fairytales, and has some stunning tales to tell. It is consistently well written, although in a wide variety of styles, and covers everything from the traditional stories to some delightfully obscure ones. There were only two that I didn't recognise, but some were hard to spot!

The authors range from first time to frequently published, and the anthology is edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft, who has had a hand in quite a few other lesbian anthologies.

I didn't really start Sleeping Beauty etc. with terribly high expectations, but I was soon entranced, and am definitely rereading these stories.

Lesbian content
If you go into this looking for lesbians, you'll find them everywhere and easily. If you don't, some of the stories could just be about devoted friends, adopted sisters and feminism - but others are still definitely full of sensual sapphic love. A couple are outright erotic.

The Stories

1. Two Sisters by R. Holsen 
This one definitely needs you to be familiar with the original story - it's about a girl who was murdered so her stepsister can marry the prince. Her bones - or the tree that grows on her grave, alternately - are made into a harp which will only sing the story of her death. The harper eventually plays it for the King and Queen, revealing the truth. 
In this version, it's a small town of unknown year, and the girl tells the story herself (which gets confusing when she's made into a harp, if you don't understand what is going on). She's in love with her slightly older adopted sister (the girl was taken into the family when her mother died), who she thought loved her back... 

2. Bones Like Black Sugar by Catherynne M. Valente
This is actually one I've read before - it's available for free online and I came across it when writing up the list of Gaylactic Spectrum Awards (it was shortlisted for the 2007 Best Short Fiction category, along with the eighth story, Voce, by Kimberly DeCina).
This story is from Gretel's perspective, living incestously with her brother, she creeps back into the woods each night through the broken sugar ruins of the cottage, to gather up the burnt bones of her beautiful beloved witch and hold her, begging for forgiveness (possibly in her dreams, it's hard to tell if this is magic or imagination).
It is definitely the creepiest of the stories, so if you find it too dark for you, don't worry - most of the others are a lot lighter.

3: The Mute Princess by A.J.Grant
Written in very typical fairytale format, this retells the story of the beautiful princess who is tricked into talking by her wise (female) suitor. While it contains few surprises, the girl definitely gets the girl, and two of the riddle-stories involve lesbian loving (in one, a woman kisses a princess to restore her to life; in the other three woman create a beautiful statue between them and bring it to life).

4: The Seduction and Secret Life of Deirdre Fallon by Fran Fadella
I'm not sure if this was based on a specific story, or just the general themes of being stolen away by fairies. Told in diary entries, we're drawn in to the secret joyful meetings between a mysterious and beautiful faerie and 19th century Abigail (who is then She Who Is Not Named, and finally discovers her true name of Deidre Fallon in the passionate kiss of her greenskinned beloved). 
The most erotic of the stories, there isn't really much plot here - "I'm meeting a special friend" "Oh, my special friend has seduced me most beautifully and we're leaving together to be happy forever" but it's told very well and the scenes with the faerie are quite entrancing.

5: Sleeping Beauty, Indeed by Regan M. Wann
By far my least favourite, this retelling of Sleeping Beauty is too choppy and 'random occurrence shall now solve everything!'-ish to do the theme justice. That, and it's fairly absurd. I assume they used this story as the title of the anthology simply because it is so recognisable. 
Basically, the evil fairy is a bit odd and rather jealous of the good fairies, it's the princess' hymen that bleeds (in an awkward and roundabout method involving lesbian love, because she never sees any men... and at an unknown age, though I later deduced she'd grown from child to teenager. I think) and a girl who comes to be her true love. And the not-quite-bad fairy who steps in to sidestep any actual repercussions.

6: Future Fortunes by Kori Aguirre-Amador
This one is the only other one that I didn't know the original of. Set in a fantastical Persia, it plays upon prophecy and fortune telling, told through the visions of a tarot reader as she predicts for her client.  
This famous and ambitious warrior has been awarded the hand of a princess in a sneakily political move that draws his teeth nicely. Because the princess has been foretold not to be touched by any man, and in this superstitious setting, the King has gone to enormous lengths to make sure nothing happens (why tempt fate, after all?). The husband obviously wasn't a local, and isn't too happy about this, so he hires a terrible and mighty warrior to fetch him his princess. 
Obviously, the warrior ends up being another woman who steals the princess, but it was fun to read.

7: Undertow by Meredith Schwartz
This one was my favourite, and the best written of the lot (in my opinion). Combining Cinderella and the original Little Mermaid story, Ella attends the ball then wanders down to the beach afterwards in her rags and bleeding feet. There she meets a lovely creature, who had gambled her life and traded her voice and tail for the chance to win Prince Charming at the same ball. 
They make friends, and play charades, and learn about each other, and end up kissing, and more, in the sand. But this is the original version, when every step felt like knives and the nameless seaprincess must dissolve into foam at the end, so it's tragic and heartfelt as well as enchanting.

8: Voce by Kimberly DeCina
The longest story in the book, it's a little confused. It makes much more sense when you finally reach the actual fairytale bit and realise that it was all leading up to that (and then past it), from the perspective of the stepsister. It ends up being a parable about knowing and being true to yourself. 
Basically, it's the story of the girls who were sent in turn to help the little men and were cursed with gold coins and toads, in turn, for every word they spoke. It starts with the narrator living with her mother at an inn, and her mother seems a wise and clever, if lonely, lady - unfortunately this wisdom turns bitter and she weds a peddler to prevent the love of her daughter and his and turn them against each other. By the end of the book, the mistreaten and lovely peddler's daughter has rejected a prince, and the self-loathing innkeep's daughter has rejected her mother and run off to slowly piece together a life with her beloved. 

9: Bird's Eye by Erzebet YellowBoy
Short, and we never actually see the two girls come together, but it's an entertaining version of Rapunzel. At first, it seems like just an alternate Rapunzel, a princess with raven hair locked away by a jealous queen - but the girl starts to dream of a golden haired girl, also locked in a tower...

10: Coyote Kate of Camden by Julia Talbot 
Jumping into the Old West here, we have a little town overrun with Coyotes. So they call for Coyote Jane, the most unusual Pied Piper, who fiddles away the beasts and doesn't get paid. The bold and decidedly unmarried newspaper lady is the protagonist, the problem solver, and the virgin claimed by Cactus Kate (because virgins have never known the touch of a man...). Pretty good, though predictable, and it feels a little rushed.

Buy Sleeping Beauty, Indeed & Other Lesbian Fairytales on Amazon ($13 paperback, $6.99 Kindle eBook).

Sleeping Beauty, Indeed & Other Lesbian Fairytales
In the same awards, two individual stories won:
  • Bones Like Black Sugar - Best Short Fiction shortlist 
  • Voce -  Best Short Fiction shortlist

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