The Thorn Boy
by Storm Constantine
Stark House, 2001
Better known as a fantasy novelist, Storm Constantine has also written a surprising number of short stories. This collection, published in 2001, features nine stories set in or around the fictional kingdom of Magravandias, which figures in her Sea Dragon Heir trilogy. The Magravandias world resembles that of Victorian Europe, but without motorized transportation or the Christian faith. It has its own history of, and fascination with, the exotic ancient kingdoms that came before it… fictionalized Orientalism, basically. As such it’s similar to the world the author created for my favorite novel of hers, Sign for the Sacred, which played around with the human concept of belief. That novel delved into what faith meant to the characters within, whether it’s based in organized religion or an obsession with a lover… the latter particularly heartbreaking, as the more invested character warns himself not to love too much or too deeply, for his lover is sure to break his heart. It’s a secular universe, no evidence presented for the supernatural or divine, which to my mind only added to its power. But in Magravandias myths and magical creatures are fact, not fiction, and as such there’s a distinct, stuffy, Edward Gorey feel to it.
Three of the stories, “Spinning for Gold,” “The Nothing Child,” and “Living with the Angel,” are rewrites of fairy tales with gay characters, following a male couple as they meet, marry, and have a child together… not mpreg, but an infant created through magical means. Though containing hallmarks of her later work – devastatingly attractive young men, angels, ritual magic – they are clearly beginner works and read like something you’d find on Wattpad. The endings just kind of stop and don’t build up to anything profound. The author began creating this universe even before her breakout Wraeththu books were published, and the stories show the mark of an earlier hand. Still, they were interesting. What begins as a variation on Rumpelstiltskin turns into a tale of lover’s deceit, then gender transcendence. Two more tales, “The True Destiny of the Heir to Emiraldra” (Tattercoats) and “The Island of Desire” (The Twelve Dancing Princesses) also reference the Grimm Brothers, the latter perhaps the most sophisticatedly, as it was written after all the others.
Cats figure in two of the tales and a reptilian shapeshifter in another. “The Face of Sekt” is about a Cat goddess of the land of Mewt (get it) and how she is tempted by the power of a demon. Another cat story, “My Lady of the Hearth” is surprisingly erotic, high comedy and horror, all at once. It deals with a subject I’m sure many cat owners have contemplated – What if my cat turned into a human? Would they be as I imagined them? Constantine answers that question in a story that takes the trope and makes it uniquely her own, in pseudo-Edwardian prose.
Another story, co-written with Eloise Coquio, is about a different kind of shapeshifter, a reptilian one, who enters a rivalry with – get this – a plant shapeshifter, for the love of a human man. The story surprised me again by being more complicated and adult than I’d expected, and I recommend it.
In my reading I saved what I thought would be the best story for last, “The Thorn Boy.” I swore I had read it before and was looking forward to refreshing my memory, but a couple of hundred words in I realized it was entirely new to me. Turns out I was thinking of another M/M story involving thorns, perhaps one written way back when by the very talented Dusk Peterson. Anyway, I was surprised, and pleasantly it turned out.
The Thorn Boy is more of a novelette than a short story. It’s set in the ancient Magravandian kingdom of Cos, which combines elements of Assyria, Persia, and Babylon. After warring with Mewt, the Egyptian-analogue kingdom, King Alofel takes the defeated Khan’s slave lover, Akaten, as his captive, intending to bed him and add him to his harem of both genders. This news is very disconcerting to Darien, who is currently the King’s favorite. In Cos sex is seen as sacred but not the emotional connection between lovers, so the amount of grief Akaten manifests for his master’s death is both perplexing and fascinating to the court. Ordered to make Akaten feel at home, Darien spitefully grooms his rival for the King’s bed, but then finds himself falling for him. All this plays out as you’d expect, and the ending was devastating. The story was more frankly erotic than Constantine’s usual work, and it actually took me a few days before I got over the story’s impact. Like Sign for the Sacred, it featured gay lovers in a slave/captive situation, a sense of the fatedness of the relationship, and its awkward and dangerous progression. Supremely recommended if you’re already a fan of the author or like M/M.