One of my favorite genres to read has always been retellings of old stories — fairy tales, folk tales, legends, lore, you name it. Fairy tale retellings speak to reading something new that gestures to something old, something that leaves hints (breadcrumbs, if you will) for you to follow, to recognize, to engage. Even if you know the tale, you aren’t always sure where the story will go and that’s just as fascinating as already knowing. And, of course, some authors are absolutely amazing and artful at recreating and reconstructing tales for new readership.
Recently, I had the opportunity via Netgalley to read an advanced readers copy of Melanie Dickerson’s A Noble Servant. A tale of faith, love, and patience, this retelling of “The Goose Girl” was actually, unbeknownst to me, the third book in a series and what many readers would categorize as Christian fiction. It was an interesting take on a traditional fairy tale, cemented firmly in the setting of the Holy Roman Empire and mid-Middle Ages. While A Noble Servant was more moralistic than I was expecting, Dickerson’s latest in her Medieval Fairy Tales series had me recalling all of my favorite fairy tale and folktale retellings. I’ve brought them all together here so they can whisk away to happily ever after — or something close.
1. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted
A bumbling fairy happens upon Ella the moment she is born and gifts her obedience. A well-meant gift, the obedience requires Ella to obey every command, suggestion, or statement given in her vicinity. When her mother dies and her father remarries, life becomes miserable when her stepsisters and stepmother discover her secret. Add in an academically-inclined, banister-sliding prince who loves her spunk, and Ella Enchanted was the ultimate girl power retelling of “Cinderella” I needed as a child. A gentle, altruistic, and well-read soul, Ella is still to this day one of my girlhood role models and many situations have me wondering, “What would Ella do?”
2. Edith Pattou’s East
A retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” East tells of a young girl whisked away from home by an arctic bear in exchange for the safety of the rest of her family. The bear takes her away to a secluded, icy castle devoid of life but for her, the bear, and a stranger who visits her only at night. Upon discovering this strangers identity, Rose sets in motion a series of events and a love to rattle the fate of herself and so many more.
East was one of the first books that I read as a tween that made me wonder at language: it is lyrical, mysterious, heart-wrenching. I’ve made a lot of friends just by mentioning this book.
3. Heather Dixon’s Entwined
Dixon’s young adult fantasy debut, Entwined is a magical and entrancing reimagining of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” After the twelve princesses’ mother passes away, their father, the king, becomes distant, unapproachable, and adamant that his eldest, Azalea, must marry. Then, one night, Azalea discovers a secret, magicked passage into a realm of dancing and feasts and happiness. Its inhabitant, the Keeper, promises an eternity of this — for a price.
Even on a re-read five years later, Dixon’s Azalea remains an exceptionally relatable YA female character and I love the characterizations of her and her eleven sisters to bits. Complete with a bumbling prince and a handsome man in tight dark pants, Entwined even a features an amazing last fight scene that illuminates the power of love, sisterhood, family, and ourselves.
4. Intisar Khanani’s Thorn
Princess Alyrra has never had a choice in her life: She must obey her mother, her brother, her kingdom, her future husband. Then, betrayal strikes on a journey to her wedding and her life has been changed by good: A sorceress changes her for her maid, and her maid for the princess. Upon arrival in her new home, she takes on a new name — Thorn — and becomes the royal goose girl. Just when she thinks she’s found freedom, the prince takes an interest in her and her lies and something more, something dark and magic, stirs at the edges of the kingdom. A masterfully-executed retelling of “The Goose Girl,” Thorn is mesmerizing, heartfelt, and beautiful. (I mean, just look at that cover!)
5. Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles
A sci-fi young adult series that pulls from fairy tales to create its characters, Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles is unique and amazing. I read the entirety of the series available to me in two weeks and waited a year with baited breath for its finale. The four books — Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter — follow the predicaments of four girls whose lives are turned dangerous and adventurous when they cross paths with the Lunar queen who is intent on conquering Earth for herself. Complete with cyborgs, wolf-men, tech-savvy heroines, and dashing heroes, The Lunar Chronicles brings the likes of “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood, “Rapunzel,” and “Snow White” into one intertwined tale of adventure, war, love, and finding one’s self.
6. Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn
A lyrical and romantic retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn opens on a vengeful Sharzad, who has agreed to marry the murderous caliph in order to exact vengeance on the man who killed her best friend. On their wedding night, when Shazi comes face to face with Khalid for the first time, the two embark on a battle of wits, hearts, and love against each other, against politics, against a curse that could end their world as they know it. The romance will give you goosebumps, the snark will make you laugh, and the badassery will stun you. (Basically, if you haven’t heart me literally crying about this book before, count yourself very lucky.)
7. Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty
Part French fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” and part Scottish folktale “Tamlin,” Cruel Beauty is dark, romantic, secretive, and mesmerizing. The first of Hodge’s fascinating and immersive fairy tale retellings, the latest of which was a complicated high fantasy reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, Cruel Beauty is the story of Nyx, who has been betrothed to her kingdom’s evil ruler — and trained to kill him — since birth. He is a twisted demon who cut her people off from the real world, who demands sacrifice after sacrifice, and Nyx hates him with ever fiber of her being. Until her wedding day, until she gets lost in the labyrinths of his castle, until she sees him for who he truly is. Does love or duty matter more in a world of secrets, curses, and sacrifice? (P.S.: This even features a stunning library.)
8. Ashley Poston’s Geekerella
Another of my most recent Netgalley reads, Geekerella is the only of these fairy tale retellings that falls under “YA contemporary.” The story of heartbroken and lonely Elle whose only company is an evil stepmother and a rejected wiener dog, Geekerella is a retelling of “Cinderella” that allows us — and Elle — to discover more than just her prince and happily ever after. This book delves into the deeper aspects of the original fairy tale, such as familial abuse, self-reliance and -confidence, and friendship. In her pursuit of happiness (or her favorite sci-fi TV show, take your pick), Elle discovers the power of herself, of friends, of first love, and of fandom.
9. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber
Not for the faint of heart, Carter’s collection of stories features a well-veiled fairy retelling in each short masterpiece. Ranging from a blood-curdling reimagining of “Bluebeard” to a tale of sexual-awakening and -confidence that recalls “Beauty and the Beast,” The Bloody Chamber is masterfully done and opens fairy tales and folktales to the realms of feminism and other theories. Each story has a new setting, a new voice, a new cadence, and a new meaning until you are in absolute awe of Carter’s genius. Read before bed (if you dare) or with all the lights on in the middle of the day. Laugh at Carter’s conniving and erotic Puss-in-Boots; cry for her mournful, heartbroken, Beast named Mr Lyon; and beware her Erl-King who is stalking you even now.
* * *
What are some of your personal favorite fairy tale retellings? Are there any you’re particularly excited to read? I personally can’t wait for the release of Maya Chhabra’s Walking on Knives, a queer reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Share your own thoughts below in the comments!