Thursday, October 8, 2015

This Time's Two

The Notorious Abbess (1997) by Vera Chapman is a collection of twelve short stories masquerading as a novel.  All of the stories concern the ingenious Abbess of Shaston, a very wealthy nunnery on the hill of Shaftesbury in Wessex. The stories are set in the time of the Crusades and are set in both England and Jersusalem.  The Abbess is very unconventional for her time—a proto-feminist, as well as a worker of magic, her adventures frequently involve the fantastic, even to the point of having the Abbess raise up the Devil for conversation.  The stories are light, but have a deftness to them and a good deal of historical detail. These stories are much less-known than they should be.  

Two Fables (1986) by Roald Dahl is a short book published in honor of Dahl’s seventieth birthday, comprising two new stories, illustrated by Graham Dean.  The illustrations (only the frontispiece is in color) are modern and completely forgettable.  The first story, “The Princess and the Poacher,” is the longer (and better) of the two.  It concerns the young man Hengist, who is repulsively ugly to every woman but his mother.  His one positive trait is that he is a good poacher, despite the heavy penalty of being put in the Drowning Tub if he were caught. One day when he is out poaching, he sees the Princess about to be killed by a boar, and rescues her, earning the excessive gratitude of the King, which leads to an unexpected ending. In the second tale, “Princess Mammalia,” we have a kind of counterpoint story, where a young, plain-looking princess wakes up on the morning of her seventeenth birthday to find that she has become a dazzling beauty. This turnabout causes a real change in the Princess, so much that she pours boiling lead over the walls of the castle onto her admirers, and plots the murder of her father. This latter leads to an unexpected result.  The two fables are not among Dahl’s best stories, but they are interesting and diverting.

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