Retold fairytales are one of my absolute favourite genres when it comes to books (and what I write!). There is something innately special about the reworking of beloved old folktales like East of the Sun, West of the Moon or Sleeping Beauty, and the thousands of creatively expressed stories that result. It’s a very personal thing, I think, the way an author decides to retell a fairytale and the new worlds they design around familiar characters.
One of the key aspects of retold fairytales lies in originality. I know, it seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but if you are taking a story that has been an intrinsic part of storytelling and popular culture for centuries, you need to add a new twist, a shot of creative universe building, to make the story fresh, new, and interesting. You’ve got to have Cinderella fighting her own battles and standing up to her wicked stepmother; you’ve got to have Jasmine weaving her own magic carpets and becoming sultan in her own right; you’ve got to have a cyborg Belle downloading books into her brain direct from the source and travelling the countryside, reading to children. Breaking the mould and seeing characters you’ve adored your whole life in amazing new situations is what makes the trope so noteworthy. And I think it’s why we keep revisiting the old stories we’re so familiar with; there are just so many amazing possibilities.
Here are a few of my favourite retold fairytales and their brilliant authors:
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier.
This story centres around the old Six Swan fairytale, where six men are turned into swans and their sister has to weave six shirts made of nettles in order to free them. Juliet Marillier sets her beautiful story in ancient Ireland, a land already doused in magic and the supernatural, and creates something truly stunning. Sorcha is brave and steadfast in her task, despite the awful circumstances that surround her, and the ending is well worth the pain and suffering she goes through. I have always thought that her brothers took what she went through for granted though.
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Robin McKinley is the Queen of the retold fairytale genre; Beauty is the best example of why she’d held the crown for so long. The beauty in this story is awkward and falls short of the looks her sisters have, but she does have personality. The decision she makes to travel to the castle is one of love and sacrifice, and the relationship she has with the Beast is one that grows and develops over time. It’s ultimately a beautiful story, with a likeable heroine and intelligent storytelling.
A Court of Thorn and Roses by Sarah J Maas
Sarah J Maas is a YA author I’ve been enjoying a lot lately. Her books are massive, epic tomes with strong, kickass female protagonists. This series starts off with a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and they keep getting better from there.
Alice by Christina Henry
Alice in Wonderland isn’t technically a fairytale, but I couldn’t leave this little gem off the list. Alice is set in a dark, strange land, where people are cruel and merciless. You won’t find whimsy here; instead, you find Alice locked in an asylum, triggered by the brutal death of a friend after a trip to a forbidden part of town years before. Hatter is a man with his own problems; imprisoned after losing his mind, Hatter falls for Alice and helps her on her journey through Wonderland. It’s disturbing and twisted, but also full of adventure, wonder, love, and heroism.
The Woodcutter by Kate Danley
The Woodcutter is a melting pot of fairytales. Set in a realm where the fairytales we’ve grown up with are all true, the Woodcutter is the keeper of the peace between the Twelve Kingdoms. When Cinderella is murdered, the Woodkeeper must find who killed her before others meet the same grisly end. The world is rich and vibrant, and full of amazing stories from around the world.
Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier
Another Beauty and the Beast retelling, beautifully rendered. Again, this one was set in ancient Ireland. Caitrin is a scribe, intelligent and skilled, and she’s on the run from deplorable family members when she seeks work at Anulan’s castle. He has spent years isolated from the outside world due to a physical deformity and some supernatural goings on, and Caitrin quickly forms a bond with him. The atmosphere is appropriately gloomy, and the love story powerful, yet understated.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Have you ever wondered what happens to the children who disappear into fairytale worlds and yet come back at the end? This deceptively short book delves into what those children have to deal with once they’re back home, with one of the main characters providing a boarding school to help them cope. It’s gorgeously written and imagined, with whole new worlds (both fantastically whimsical and terrifyingly dark) opened up. If you’ve ever wanted to fall into Wonderland, open a wardrobe into Narnia, or run through a brick wall to Platform 9 and 3/4, this is the book for you.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Based on Russian folktales, this glorious book is dark and magical. It evokes a wintery feel, where you feel the impulse to set in a comfy chair by the fireside, blanket in your lap, while you read into the wee hours. Vasilisa loves the tales her nurse tells her by the fire – particularly that of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon who appears in the night to steal souls. Vasilisa‘s father’s new wife is a devoutly Christian woman who refuses to adhere to the old ways, and so crops begin to fail and misfortune stalks the village. It’s up to Vasilisa to protect her home and her family, while everyone else turns away.
Do you have a favourite retold fairytale? I would love to find new recommendations!