The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others is a collection by Richard Bowes, consisting of eight short stories and one brief essay. The book is thin, yet manages to contain an earnest, appealing, welcome contribution to the fairy-tale tradition. It explores the cultural operation of fairy-tale-telling, the moral mission of the fable, and the consequences of descending from your lovely old grandma's demon lover. By paying attention to the different forms and purposes of fairy-tales (though not, I think, in precisely the way it intends to) and by working with rather than against its material, The Queen, the Cambion moves beyond either rehashing the canon's greatest hits or sneering deconstruction. The collection unearths these tensions, and learns how to put precise pressure on them, through occupying rather than razing its chosen territory.
The collection's stories don't seem to demand inclusion in the same volume, though they sit comfortably together. There's some business by way of an introduction to the collection about how
Myth is the sea on which the Fantasy story floats.
Legend is the wind that drives it.
Its place of birth is the Fairy Tale.
The book includes examples of these four categories, but the breakdown is wobbly. The terms of the taxonomy are more vague and purple than any of the stories it attempts to contain, and the logical flow makes about as much sense as Yoda's "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering!" speech from The Phantom Menace, a faux-causal sequence that the Plinkett Reviews have rightly lampooned as arbitrary, interchangeable, and meaningless.
The order of stories (seemingly also dictated by this taxonomy) feels somewhat poorly judged, front-loading the collection's weaker pieces. "Seven Smiles and Six Frowns," a story about the politicization and social nature of fairy-tales, about transmission, inheritance, and how stories and communities change over time, is stronger in concept than in execution. "The Cinnamon Cavalier" is inoffensive, but potentially the weakest tale of the lot. Charming details ("'The dessert ruined, ruined,' wailed the pastry chef. 'Quick, prepare a hasty pudding'" [p. 22]) lead to an ending that seems uncomfortably aware of the fact that it doesn't quite work. "The Margray's Children" is perfectly well-written, but lacking in meat. Given that the collection has guns to blaze, wouldn't it have been better to come out with them? Instead The Queen, the Cambion keeps its strongest material in reserve, only really getting into its swing after a third of the book has elapsed. By adhering to a clunky organizing structure, this collection risks losing the attention of readers who want to engage with it in a linear manner. The structure also implies intentionality: the author wants readers to approach his collection in this order. But I get no real sense of why.
However, even at its weakest points, the book is never bad. All the collection's stories are soundly expressed and strongly conceived. Characters are quickly, firmly established. This is one of the only short story collections I can recall where I was never left asking what the point of a given story had been, and why it had been necessary to tell it. I don't mean that in a simplistic, moralistic Aesop sense, but in terms of stage-worthiness, intention, and import. There is admirable bravery, dedication, and real craft in having something to say or think through and doing it.
What's also impressive is the range of modes and styles the text deals in, and its seeming comfort across this range. "The Progress of Solstice and Chance" concerns itself with the personal and social consequences of the passage of time—a theme many of the collection's stories return to. It's an evocative myth, pleasing on a language level. No one sentence is showily glorious, but taken all together they generate a lovely hum, like grasshoppers on a summer night. "The Lady of Wands," in stark contrast, is a compact, somewhat unusual urban fantasy. Given the political nature of its core problem, the number of characters and the scope of its worldbuilding, "The Lady of the Wands" feels like it might have played out better as a novella or novel. But it accomplishes its goals in its current form, and perhaps it ultimately could not have sustained the pressures of added length. "The Bear Dresser's Secret" is a Grimms-esque, sprightly moral tale with engaging dialogue. "Sir Morgavian Speaks of the Night Dragons and Other Things," which asks what Arthur and his knights get up to in their brief bouts of wakefulness while slumbering through the ages in Avalon, has an interesting premise. Ultimately, however, I feel it could have done more to make its conclusion matter. Of all the collection's stories, it is the one I'm closest to questioning the use of.
The title piece is the collection's crowning achievement: a sensitive time-travel romance between Merlin and Queen Victoria. It's unusual to see Victoria as a fallible person rather than a element of the jingoistic steampunk backdrop or a figurehead for imperialism. Yet without glorifying the monarchy or washing away Victorian England's complex involvement with India, Bowes uses Victoria-the-person to explore two people's passage through life and into death, their relationship, and the changing nature of the monarchy. The use of time travel allows both characters to help one another become themselves in an unusual and affecting manner. The sexual turn the relationship eventually takes is only implied, but this would be a love story even if the love involved were purely platonic.
There are stand-out observations and lines here, and some deft characterization. The final sentences, which describe the spell cast when a wizard decides to die, are crisp, white and beautiful against an inky funereal pall. Silly Billy, the Sailor King, who gives Victoria the scrap of parchment she uses to invoke Merlin, and the tragic figure of Henry X, last King of England, are both excellent. The story's exploration of "the picturesque ruins and the undefendable faux castles that dotted the landscape near any royal residence" (p. 133) begins with Merlin's contempt for such nostalgic affectations. Yet as he ages, Merlin comes to appreciate the potential for authentic feeling that such sentiment can sometimes offer. "Now he understood that they had been built in tribute to the sage who'd saved the young princess, the handsome magician who'd helped her choose her husband, the quicksilver youth of her widowhood" (p. 134). The story says thoughtful things about the uses of sentimentality—an unglamorous construction, but no less important to our emotional life for that.
The closing essay, "A Secret History of Small Books," falls rather flat in comparison. It attempts to plot a connection between femininity, small books, queerness, and fairy-tales. While its proposition, data, and images are all interesting, the line of argument is not sufficiently developed. The piece might have benefited from additional academic rigor. Alternatively, it might have benefited from a craft-level engagement with compelling modern essayists, such as Anne Carson or John D'Agata, who work with factual subjects. In contrast with the fairy-tales themselves, this piece doesn't feel informed by the strong writing that exists in its tradition. As it is, the piece's conclusions and crescendo are unearned, and its interesting lines of connection, between small books and queerness and all the rest, tenuously droop.
The stories are interspersed with excellent public domain, black and white fairy-tale illustrations. These vintage pieces seem a bit random, but well chosen in that a good range of lovely stuff is represented, introducing the reader to artwork they may well have been unfamiliar with. It's a simple inclusion, but it makes the book that much more worth owning.
The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others is a well-executed collection that has things to say and takes exactly the time it needs to say them, without bloated waffling or faux-deep allusive terseness. I read it quickly and with pleasure, and wanted immediately to share it with the friends who’d appreciate this or that story. There are a thousand and one books, films, and shows on the market at the moment attempting to capitalize on the name recognition and nostalgia-credit of fairy-tales. Often, in trying to modernize these sources, these updates are content to make fairy-tales somehow dark, make them sexy, to punk them into ubiquitous, monotonous crapness. These reworkings often feel awkward, juvenile, and tiresome. We get forced "edginess" in place of complexity or emotional maturity, from writers who, against all textual evidence and analytic tradition, apparently think the source text didn't already have compelling, intricate things to say about sexuality and violence. Savvy, engaged, thoughtful participation can be a more interesting and rewarding means of engagement with a tradition or story than a detached, ultimately unsubversive subversion. This collection contributes to the traditions it very consciously places itself within with humor, skill, and a notable respect for both its lineage and its readers.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.