The Queen, the Cambion and Seven Others is a thoroughly delightful short collection of fairy tales and fantasies, published by the small press, Aqueduct Press.
Richard Bowes opens with “Seven Smiles and Seven Frowns,” in which a woman remembers listening to the stories told by the Witch of the Forest of Avalon when she was a girl. One particular story, ending in a typical “he carried the princess off and they lived happily ever after” fashion, displeases her twelve-year-old self. The witch tells her she’ll like the next night’s story better, and indeed, the alternate version of the tale from the night before, with a much different ending for prince and princess, suits her down to her toes. That is how she becomes the apprentice of the witch, and begins to formulate not only her own tales, but new versions of the old tales, including the one that made her an apprentice.
“The Cinnamon Cavalier” is about the problem of cooking for giants. Do you have any idea what it takes to make a single cookie for a giant princess? And what do you do when the cookie comes to life? These are problems we’ll never face in this world, but they’re fun to read about in Bowes’s.
“The Margay’s Children” is narrated by the godfather of a girl who really wants a cat — but her mother is allergic. Or so her mother says. But someone observes that housecats react to her mother the same way they react to wild cats, and thereby hangs a tail. Er, tale.
The wedding of the King of Winter and the Queen of Summer sets the events of “The Progress of Solstice and Chance” into motion. Solstice is the eventual child of the marriage, Fate and Folly her grandparents; Chance, their child, was Solstice’s cousin, and her first love. It seems to be a parable about climate change, told through the actions of gods and goddesses. The writing is lovely.
“The Lady of Wands” opens with the titular character drinking a pot of enchanted black tea as she does every morning. The tea is called Charile, and it erases bad memories and hangovers. It’s not that the narrator is frequently hung over; her need is much more to rid her of the bad memories she has accumulated over a few centuries of life. Her memory is not helped by the fact that she is the chief law officer of the King beneath the Hill. She toys with a viaculum, a frozen memory, that an informant has given her, as she begins the investigation of the death of a mortal in her domain. Investigation is easier because she is telepathic, as are all of her kind; secrets are rare. But the secret involved in this murder, this memory, is one that reaches deep into the heart of Faerie. It’s a fine bit of urban fantasy in short form.
One of my favorite stories in the collection, “The Bear Dresser’s Secret,” begins when Sigistrix the Bear Dresser, a Grand Master of the Animal Dressers Guild, leaves the Duchess and her castle with no warning. This is a disaster, as the Great Fair is only a month away, and no one else knows how to dress the bears. But Grismerelda, the Duchess’s young maid, volunteers to attempt the task. And Grismerelda is one smart woman. The only problem is that the Duchess has to figure out how to dress herself from here on out.
In Avalon, after King Arthur and his knights are sent to slumber away the years with only rare moments of wakefulness, waiting until England needs them again. But one individual says awake, and “Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” is his tale. He occasionally meets other knights when they awaken, finding them forgetful and fretful, disturbed by what Morgravain has to tell them about the two millennia they have been sleeping. Morgravain is largely making up what he tells them, trying hard to disturb their sleep; he believes it is his duty to spread unease. It is easily the oddest tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table I have ever encountered, and it is both charming and troubling because of that oddness.
“The Queen and the Cambion” is Bowes’s most wonderful tale in the collection. It tells of Queen Victoria’s relationship with Merlin — her means of summoning him, his role in her life, how he is disconnected with time, how she comes to trust him without questioning the magic that brings him to her. It would be a crime for me to tell you any more about the story than that; you should discover it for yourself. But I assure you that this tale alone is worth the price of the book. When I first reviewed this story upon its appearance in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the March/April 2012 issue, I said that it was “nothing more than a bonbon, but … a delicious one.” On rereading, I am more attuned to the love that shines through the story, which renders it more in the nature of a complex gourmet truffle, starting with whimsy but ending with a true understanding of duty and friendship, and containing a few dark notes of bitterness.
Perhaps this rereading has led to this reassessment because the story anchors a collection that is generally light; sometimes context really matters. But one who is willing to look for complexities layered between the levels of whipped cream and jam will find them. One theme of this collection is that women are actors, not those who are acted upon. They are not princesses who find their princes and then live happily ever after as in a Disney movie. They go out and make history, from the witch in “Seven Smiles and Seven Frowns” to Queen Victoria in “The Queen and the Cambion.” These women don’t disdain men; it’s not a competition. They are themselves, full of initiative, smart, political, willing to risk and always ready to strategize. This book would be ideal for a preteen or young teen girl who is starting to wonder what it means to be female in this country, in this time.
This collection of modern Fairy Tales, their Fantasy offspring, and their legendary ancestors presents eight stories including ”The Lady of Wands,” in which a Fey cop tells her story, that appears here for the first time. Also original to this book is Bowes’ afterword, ”A Secret History of Small Books,” which traces the path of Fairy Tales as a refuge for women, gay/lesbian writers, and LGBT readers from the seventeenth century on.
This collection also includes ”Seven Smiles and Six Frowns” a story of the evolution of a Fairy Tale; ”The Cinnamon Cavalier,” a Fairy Tale variation a critic has called, ”The Gingerbread Man, writ large,” and ”The Margay’s Children’,’ a modern take on a ”Beastly Bridegroom” tale; ”The Progress of Solstice and Chance,” with its complex sexual relations and invented pantheon of gods, the outrageous situation and characters of ”The Bear Dresser’s Secret,” and the ”The Lady of Wands,” set in a fairy/mortal demimonde; and two Arthurian tales, ”Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” and ”The Queen and the Cambion” in which the eponymous queen, though famous, is not Guinevere.