Since most of what I write is in the overall category of fairy tale retellings, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites in the genre. If there’s a specific tale that you’re interested in, mention in the comments. I might know some good retellings. I’ve read a lot of these over the years!
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth– Kate Forsyth is amazing. She’s a long time fantasy author, with a doctorate in fairytale studies. Her blog has some amazing background information on this book. This Rapunzel retelling imagines three parallel storylines. Charlotte-Rose de la Force is banished from Versailles due to a series of affairs. She takes refuge in a convent, where a nun tells her the story of a young girl who is sold to a mysterious woman in exchange for some bitter greens. It also tells the story of Selena, the muse of the 16th-century artist Tiziano, who comes to be known as La Strega Bella. These three narratives are braided together (pun intended) to create the story of Rapunzel. Charlotte-Rose de la Force was a real person who wrote the Rapunzel story. Selena is also based on a real historical figure.
“I had always been a great talker and teller of tales.
‘You should put a lock on that tongue of yours. It’s long enough and sharp enough to slit your own throat,’ our guardian warned me, the night before I left home to go to the royal court at Versailles … I just laughed. ‘Don’t you know a woman’s tongue is her sword? You wouldn’t want me to let my only weapon rust, would you?”
Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon– This is a retelling of The Little Mermaid, that has a sad tone more in line with Hans Christian Anderson than Disney. Princess Margrethe’s kingdom is at war. One day while walking along the beach she sees a mermaid rescue a nearly drowned man. By the time Margrethe reaches them the mermaid has disappeared beneath the waves. As Margrethe nurses the man back to health, she learns that he’s a prince of the enemy kingdom. But she falls in love with him, and certain that he was brought to her for a reason. Margrethe comes up with a plan to bring peace to both kingdoms. Meanwhile, mermaid princess Lenia is also unable to forget the drowning man that she helped to rescue. She’s willing to sacrifice her home, her voice, and her health to become human, to be with him. While the prince is a bit more two dimensional than I might like (I’d like to know why these two women love him so much) the fact that this novel presents both of these characters as heroines and puts them at cross purposes, makes it both poignant and compelling.
“There are people all over the world who carry the mermaid inside them, that otherworldly beauty and longing and desire that made her reach for heaven when she lived in the darkness of the sea.”
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier– This retelling of The Wild Swans kicks off a six book series, though it can be read as a stand-alone. Lord Colum of Sevenwaters (in Ancient Ireland) has seven children. Six sons and a daughter, Sorcha. When Colum marries a sorceress, Sorcha’s brothers are enchanted. They are turned into birds. In order to break the spell, Sorcha must weave shirts out of nettles for all of them, while remaining silent until her task is complete. The silence becomes more difficult when Sorcha is captured by the Britons and taken overseas. But she continues her task until she is confronted with choosing between saving her brothers and protecting the man with whom she has fallen in love. Sorcha is a wonderful heroine. She’s smart, determined, and strong but not in a cartoonish way. She has weaknesses too, that make her a well-rounded character.
“The man journeyed far, and he heard and saw many strange things on his travels. He learned that – that the friend and the enemy are but two faces of the same self. That the path one believes chosen long since, constant and unchangeable, straight and wide, can alter in an instant. Can branch, and twist and lead the traveler to places far beyond his wildest imaginings. That there are mysteries beyond the mind of mortal man, and that to deny their existence is to spend a life of half-consciousness.”
Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier– This is a Beauty and the Beast story that is both fantastic and very human. Eighteen-year-old Caitrin was trained as a scribe, but she runs away from home to avoid a forced marriage. She takes refuge at Whistling Tor, where Anluan, the crippled, cursed chieftain, lives in a house full of (literal) ghosts. When violence once again threatens her happiness, Caitrin and Anluan must stand together to break a curse. By making Caitrin find refuge from an outside threat with Anluan, Marillier avoids any possible accusation of Stockholm syndrome, and creates a lovely, bittersweet romance.
“He was seated on the bench now. He had his left elbow on his knee, his right arm across his lap, his shoulders hunched, his head bowed. White face, red hair: snow and fire, like something from an old tale. The book I had noticed earlier was on the bench beside him, its covers shut. Around Anluan’s feet and in the birdbath, small visitors to the garden hopped and splashed and made the most of the day that was becoming fair and sunny. He did not seem to notice them. As for me, I found it difficult to take my eyes from him. There was an odd beauty in his isolation and his sadness, like that of a forlorn prince ensorcelled by a wicked enchantress, or a traveller lost forever in a world far from home.”
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley– I am one of the rare McKinley fans who prefer Rose Daughter to McKinley’s other Beauty and the Beast story, Beauty. Don’t get me wrong, I like Beauty but I think Rose Daughter’s more innovative while still keeping the spirit of the original story. I can see where the ending of this one might be a bit controversial among fans, but I liked it. We see Beauty have a different relationship with her sisters than we’re used to. They don’t always get along, but they basically care about one another. We also see that Beauty has really fallen in love with the Beast himself, rather than the castle and his wealth etc. There’s more complexity to this telling IMO.
“She looked up at once, pierced to the heart by the sorrow in his voice and knowing, from the question and the sorrow together, that he had no notion of what had just happened to her, nor why. From that she pitied him so greatly that she cupped her hands again to hold a little of the salamander’s heat, not for serenity but for the warmth of friendship. But as she felt the heat again running through her, she knew at once it bore a different quality. It had been a welcome invader the first time, only moments before; but already it had become a constituent of her blood, intrinsic to the marrow of her bones, and she heard again the salamander’s last words to her: Trust me. At that moment she knew that this Beast would not have sent such misery as her father’s illness to harry or to punish, knew too that the Beast would keep his promise to her, and to herself she made another promise to him, but of that promise she did not yet herself know. Trust me sang in her blood, and she could look in the Beast’s face and see only that he looked at her hopefully.”
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory McGuire– This book tells us straight away that we should forget about the magical Cinderella story we knew. In 17th century Holland, the widowed Margarethe marries a painter and she and her two daughters move in with him and his daughter, Clara. We follow the story of Iris, Margarethe’s plain-faced daughter, and Ruth, her mentally challenged sister, as they try to find a place for themselves in the world. They learn that deception can be found where you least expect it. But love can be found there too. The “wicked” stepsisters here have complex reasons for their actions. And love is usually at the heart of those reasons.
In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings…. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats….
East by Edith Pattou– In the rural villages of Norway it is believed that children inherit the qualities of the direction in which they are born. Nymah Rose was born facing north. North born babies are intelligent, unpredictable, and likely to leave home and break their mother’s hearts. Rose’s mother lies and says that her daughter was born facing the more obedient east. But destiny can’t be denied that easily. One night a white bear shows up at the house and says that if she goes with him her ailing, poor family will be happy, healthy and rich. Rose jumps at the chance. She lives with the white bear in his castle. But when her actions unintentionally harm her new friend, Rose must go on a seemingly impossible quest to save him. This story blends the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon with Nordic superstition, Norse mythology and Inuit mythology. It moves through the voices of each of the characters to give us a kaleidoscopic view of the world Pattou creates.
“I knelt by the design. Yes, there was the sun rising. But the white form I had always thought to be a cloud was a bear. I could see it now, upside down. White bear, isbjorn, stood for north. Father had not been able to help himself. The truth was there, too. Truth and lie, side by side.”
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter– If you’re a teen or adult who loves fairy tales but hasn’t read this collection, please do so right now. I’ll wait. In these stories, Carter retells tales that we all know, Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood… But she retells them in ways that are humorous, dark, sensual, and subversive.
“There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption.”
Transformations by Anne Sexton– In this collection, Anne Sexton adapts seventeen fairy tales. Each poem opens with a modern-day prologue in which Sexton, compares the tale to a modern theme. These touch on topics like desperation, memory, insanity, and deception. Then she retells the story through this lens. Most of these poems have a sense of humor, but there’s an undercurrent of darkness as well.
“He turns the key.
It opens this book of odd tales.
Which transform The Brothers Grimm.
As if an enlarged paper clip
Could be a piece of sculpture.
(And it could.)”