Review: 'The Wicked Stepbrother' Showcases LGTBQ+ Fairy Tales

Monday November 15, 2021

Review: 'The Wicked Stepbrother' Showcases LGTBQ+ Fairy Tales

From the wicked stepbrother of the title, to an incipiently magical young man making a life-changing agreement with a talking frog, to a married gay couple tormented by a supernatural Scottish entity, the tales in Warren Rochelle's "The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories" re-cast traditional fairy tales as gay-affirming (and, just as importantly, gay relationship-affirming) lessons on life's hardships and challenges, the difficulties of family, and the hard, sometimes frightening, work of figuring out who one is, and what one's place in the world might be.

The book is more or less the sum of two parts. One comprises a suite of tales that take place in mystical otherwheres — places where magic holds sway, along with monarchal and aristocratic power structures. (The "Wicked Stepbrother" in question is a not entirely kindly man in love with a prince; he's skilled in magic, and the stepbrother of none other than Cinderella, though she's got another name here, and she, like he, is perfectly capable of nasty scheming.)

These stories are loosely linked together, and contained in the framework of the title story, which is divided into three distinct parts, each one a self-contained account that leads into, and builds from, the others. (Taking place across the span of years, these stories also reflect character growth and shifting relationships.) These stories operate according to the same rules and shared history, creating the feeling of a richly detailed world.

The book's second half is set in a reality that's more or less recognizable as our own, although with access to other realities. Denizens of mythical lands (Tir Na Nog, Faerie) cross into our world, their powers intact; like us, they have needs and desires, and like us some of them are LGBTQ+. These stories, too, tend toward the romantic, though they're less drawn from the epic fantasy tradition and written to communicate a sense of realism tinged with magic. A lonesome man realizes, after taking in a stranger and falling desperately in love, that he is living a true version of a fairy tale that, in its various re-tellings, always ends in tears; can he will a different outcome into being? Two college freshmen find themselves instinctually, powerfully drawn to each other — but the adults in their lives have not been entirely truthful with them, and have plans in mind that threaten their happiness. A tender romance rendered as a ghost story follows a university professor during a stint of teaching abroad, in a country where magic can still happen... and does.

Some of these stories tug at the heart; others prompt it to gallop with suspense. More than anything, the reality and primal force of same-sex love in its full suite of manifestations (sexual, spiritual, romantic) illuminates these works — as indeed they have illuminated folk tales and fairy tales forever, with relatively modern, self-appointed guardians of literature and culture stripping out gay references and forcing contemporary versions of old stories through a cisgender, heterosexual lens. As Rochelle points out in his introduction and afterword, there are now efforts to correct and re-balance the literary tradition of the fairy tale, restoring their full spectrum of glamour and enchantment. "The Wicked Stepbrother" contributes substantially to those efforts... and, more crucially to the typical reader, they will sing in your heart.

"The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories" is available now from JMS Books LLC.