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In Jean Roberta’s collection of eleven historical erotic short stories, The Princess and the Outlaw (Lethe Press), readers will encounter a broad range of characters and situations, from the fantastical to the mundane, from the joyous to the horrifying, from Amazon warriors and wayward nuns to down-and-out women of the 1920s and Canadian Mounties, all presented with an eye towards chronological sequence and the queer experience.
The collection begins with four concise stories, including the titular piece, that cover erotic encounters from the Amazonian battlegrounds to a medieval castle and then to a nunnery frequented by an angel of questionable motive. From there the stories take on a greater complexity, starting with “The Lady of the Moon.” Written in a fairy-tale style that includes dragons, magic, and yes, even the famed witch in the woods, this piece has a shameless, joyful conclusion in which several characters confront their fears and hopes in a literal orgy of self-expression.
While most of the stories in this collection contain some elements of coercion or non-consent, the following piece, “Soul Search,” is set during the Salem witch trials of the 1600s, and is laden with rape, abuse, and humiliation; readers who may find this unpleasant or triggering are advised to proceed with caution, or avoid the story entirely.
“The World Turned Upside Down” is one of the most distinctive pieces in terms of narrative style and audience (a man defending his actions to a jury), and has a gruesome, tragic end reminiscent of a murder ballad. “Becoming Alice” cleverly and sweetly imagines the further adventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice as she returns to Wonderland and is introduced to the world of sensual pleasure. The next two stories are set after the stock market crash of 1929 and imagine what two different women do to survive in their newly impoverished situations. The final tale is one of striking realism; it takes place in late 1960s Canada and follows the romance of two women in their efforts to create a family.
While many of the pieces in Roberta’s collection are set in diverse, fascinating times and places, there are unfortunately few historical details embedded in the narratives, and often the temporal and physical location is made clear through explanatory dialogue or text. Particularly in the earlier stories, the plot seems to focus almost entirely on the sexual encounters and leave out the details that create a believable setting. In the later stories the text delivers a greater richness of character and plot, though the motives and desires of the characters are often vague or lacking depth.
As for the erotica itself, it is explicit, almost entirely queer, and certainly passionate. There are tender moments as well as rough, and at times it gives a valuable glimpse into the more complex facets of human relationships, most notably in “A Visit from the Man in Red.” There are power dynamics at play, and often one or several of the characters finds joy, release, or a more authentic life through their sexual encounters.
The acts and vocabulary are often repetitive; penetration occurs with dildos fashioned from a variety of materials, and even in queer pairings there is great value placed on the deflowering or loss of virginity that is perceived to occur as a result of said penetration. Additionally, there is frequently initial resistance on the part of one or both parties, and the names for female anatomical parts seem largely restricted to “nubin,” “button,” “hole,” and, strangely, “lower mouth.” However, between the sometimes monotonous sex scenes Roberta’s writing is often flecked with humor and a self-aware absurdity, which creates some pleasurable, shimmering moments that compliment the more tightly-written scenes.
The Princess and the Outlaw
By Jean Roberta
Paperback, 9781590214916, 164 pp.