Fairy Tale Book Reviews
This is where I review some of my favourite
fairy-tale fantasy novels
Spinning Silver (2018) by Naomi Novik
Oh wow! this was a gripping story that kept me hooked from the first line. I loved the settings of a fairy kingdom of endless winter, and a parallel human one reminiscent of pre-revolutionary Russia, I loved the lyrical language and the layering of themes, but most of all I loved the characters of the three female protagonists, all struggling to survive and keep their loved ones safe
Iryna is the motherless daughter of a duke. She is privileged by birth, but is neither loved nor valued by anyone except her ageing nurse, and is but a pawn in the marriage market for her father’s self-advancement, and her father is a very ambitious man…
Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, forced to witness her mother’s health fail, largely due to poverty, whileher father is too soft-hearted to reclaim his debts and support his family. Miriyem can either watch her mother die or takematters into her own hands and do things that girls don’t usually dare to do…
Wanda is a motherless village girl eking out a bleak existence with her brothers and their brutal father. When Miryem, themoney-lender’s daughter, strikes a bargain for Wanda to work off her father’s debt and secretly keep some money forherself, there is some hope of respite for Wanda, but only until her father wants to sell her to a man for a better deal…
Three young women, with little or no control over their own lives, who have only their wits and courage to gain respect,autonomy and happiness. I cared about all three characters, and was drawn into their interweaving stories as they workedto overcome not only the control of men over them, but a dreadful danger to the whole of their community at large — athreat that seems beyond mortal power to fight, for it is embodied in a demon of fire and a fae king of ice, both of whomhave no regard for human life.
In the spirit of Rumpelstiltskin there are themes of bargaining, of magical transformations into gold, of the importance ofnames, royalty, battles of wits, and the bartering for the life of a child. The ending was satisfying, if a little surprising—Ididn’t expect one of the heroines to make the romantic choice that she did, but I’m not going to give it away!
I would rate this as mature YA. It’s a clean read without sex or bad language, but there is fantasy horror and violence,though (happily for squeamish me) less horror than in Novik’s last fairy tale Uprooted. You know you’ve read a goodbook when you find yourself wondering what happened to the characters when the last chapter ends…and I wish I couldfollow these brave young women and see how their lives progressed beyond this story.
A Fairy-tale Ending (2015) by Jack Heckel
This book was so much fun! A kingdom beset by a marauding dragon, a sleeping princess waiting to be rescued, glassslippers, a troupe of performing dwarves, balls, battles, and a not-so-charming prince—this book has got all my favouritefairy-tale tropes and characters, and it’s got them with lots of added humour and twists.
While there are a trio of decidedly non-passive princess/heroines in this story, for me this was a fairy tale of two heroes.Will Pickett is the unlikely hero of the two—clumsy, dreamy, but big-hearted. His life as a dirt-poor farmer transformswhen he accidentally rids the kingdom of a dragon and rescues a damsel in distress. However, suddenly being catapultedinto fame and fortune and winning the hand of a beautiful princess (with some scary mind-control tendencies) is a littlemore than he can handle on his own…
Prince Charming starts out as the anti-hero—a vain, arrogant philanderer, he still manages to be very funny (I giggled inpublic more than once while reading), and surprisingly brave, though in vain-glory style. Happily, he eventually redeemshimself and gives up his womanising ways, if not his painful sensitivity to fashion. My only concern was that he seemedto spend most of the story in a state of self-inflicted concussion…
There are more than just dragons to beware in the kingdom of Royaume: Sleeping Beauty learns that messing with darkmagic is a very dangerous business, and definitely not recommended, neither is antagonising giant trolls that (that wouldbe you, Charming), unless you want to get repeatedly hammered into oblivion. True Love is a dangerous business too, itcan strike in the most unlikely places and make surprising matches.
I highly recommend this for fairy tale lovers, especially if you enjoyed Shrek. There was a smattering of bad language,nothing too strong, though it did jar the reading experience a tad for me in what was otherwise a clean read. I would ratethis as a YA novel, and would love to see it made into a film by Dreamworks!
Spindle's End (2000) by Robin McKinley
At last the king and queen have their long-wished-for child, and no less than twenty-one fairy godmothers will be at the baby princess’s name-day to give their blessings. But one wicked fairy was not invited, and she is flaming mad about it…
In the world of Spindle's End fairies are commonplace, found in every village, living alongside the non-magic humans. Some fairies have only the power to descale a kettle of magic dust, while others are very powerful, but the rulers of the kingdom must not be magical. Very Important.
So when the evil fairy who gate-crashed the princess’s name-day proclaims she will curse and destroy the princess before she (the princess) reaches the age of twenty-one, and take over the kingdom—that is bad. Very Bad.
The queen’s most powerful fairy and magician conspire to save the royal infant by sending her into hiding. She will grow up tucked away in the delightfully named village of Foggy Bottom with two ‘ordinary’ fairies, to live an ordinary life. When her 21st birthday has passed, and she has evaded the curse, then she can return to her rightful place. But until that day, no one must know who she is.
The world building in this novel is rich and dense with sensory detail, creating a deliciously immersive setting. It's a world where magic is so common it leaves dust in the air, yet people go about their ordinary business, taking magic in their stride. I loved McKinley’s animal characters (I enjoyed her humans and fairies too). The natural world is as magical as the supernatural one. Animals act as nurses to the baby princess, and also as her guardians, friends, and helpers. As the secret princess grows, she develops a powerful gift of animal-speaking, a lovely magical gift if she were an ordinary dweller of Foggy Bottom, but in her case, not lovely, because the rulers of the kingdom cannot be magical. Bad, Very Bad, though none except the fairies raising her realise this.
Also Very Bad is the problem of the princess being not very princess-ey; she won’t wear dresses and those delightful blonde curls they blessed her with on her name-day she insists on hacking off. Those fairy blessings of being skilful at embroidery and light on her dancing feet–forget it! She works with horses and has fallen in love with a seemingly ordinary man; how will she transform into a graceful princess and marry her betrothed handsome prince? More Very Bad stuff.
I won’t spoil the ending; suffice to say that it's appropriate for a quirkily subversive fairy tale retelling. I was sorry to leave the world of Foggy Bottom and the life of Princess Rosie—always the sign of a great story. In fact, Spindle’s End is now my favourite McKinley novel thus far, but I’ve still got a few more to enjoy—Yay
Fairest (2006) by Gail Carson Levine
Sometimes you just want to snuggle down with a nice sweet fairy tale, and Levine is one author I turn to when I need a bit of story-comfort. Although written 13 years ago, Fairest is as relevant today in its themes of female beauty and self-esteem as it ever has been, and no doubt will continue to be.
15-year-old Aza starts out, as many good fairy-tale heroines do, as an orphan. Happily for her, though, she is not of the downtrodden and unwanted type; she does have a loving, hard-working family. Her problems are confined to her misery over her lack of looks.
Aza is convinced she is ugly, and thus not fit to be seen. Aza might not be good looking, but she does have a remarkable voice, and in a kingdom where singing is highly prized this is a gift that cannot fail to bring her notice. A chance opportunity takes Aza out into the world, to the royal palace, no less. And when the new queen appoints Aza as her lady-in-waiting, things seem very exciting — but… the beautiful new queen is not all she appears to be. And in this adventuresome retelling of Snow White, Aza becomes the queen’s object of envy and destruction.
Wicked magic mirrors, fearful ogres, friendly gnomes and a charming prince; true love and treachery – Aza will have to navigate enemies and emotions alike, and learn that true beauty is not skin-deep. This is a lovely middle-grade story and fun reworking of Snow White set in the same world as Ella Enchanted.
Straw into Gold: Fairy Tales Re-spun (2018) by Hilary Mckay
I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of ten short stories, each one beautifully written with a gentle twist or a fresh perspective on a well-known fairy tale.
In The Tower and the Bird, twin siblings strive to release a captive bird but the bird has been caged too long to easily take to freedom. A lovely short story that parallels that of Rapunzel, held captive in her tower, and her slow adjustment to freedom.
Straw into Gold is Rumpelstiltskin with a twist. A fae hob without a name lives on the edge of a village, tolerated because of his hard work until the day he is driven away to live in isolation and loneliness. Into the story comes a miller’s daughter with ambitions to be the bride of the king, and who discovers the strange little hob's secret gift of spinning straw into gold. In this tale it is the miller’s daughter who drives a hard bargain, and the story tells of what happens after the queen thwarts Rumpelstiltskin.
The Roses Round the Palace is a Cinderella story with a reluctant prince who doesn’t really want a royal wife, and would rather be tending to his prized roses; but a prince has to marry, and to find a wife there must be a ball…
The strange and dark tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin is retold in The Fountain in the Market Square. The young people of the city of Hamelin are a picnicking, pleasure-loving generation whose partying in the village square attracts an influx of rats. When the Pied Piper offers to remove the rats by means of his magical piping, the city mayor agrees, but does not pay the piper his agreed fee—so when the Piper comes again, he comes to exact a dreadful recompense…
Snow White is retold as Chickenpox and Crystal, when a young girl finds a shard of a broken mirror, she becomes obsessed with becoming the prettiest of them all…
In The Prince and the Problem, a retelling of The Princess and the Pea, a young prince is not very charming, he’s thoroughly bad-tempered due to being cursed by his fairy godmother; the only thing that will break the curse is for him to marry a true princess, but where to find one, especially when the girl the prince really likes is but a housemaid…?
Over the Hills and Far Away is a Red Riding Hood story. Polly is a foundling, and considered a little strange, especially when she takes to visiting an old lady she calls Granny, who lives in the wild woods where a wolf is rumoured to roam. The only person in the village as odd as Polly is Tom Piper, but one day Tom disappears, and the footprints of a great wolf appear. This is a story of outlaws and outcasts, and of people not being quite what they seem.
In Things Were Different in Those Days an impoverished princess tries to unravel the mystery of her long-lost aunts and the princes they danced away the nights with in this funny retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
When a new teacher comes to the little school house in the forest she is puzzled and bemused by the stories of her new pupils. Little Miss Punzel is absent due to being stuck up a tower, one little girl with blonde hair cannot spell ‘porridge’, and a girl called Beauty has been taken away to live with a beast. In an essay on 'What I did in the holidays' Gretel tells a fanciful story of she and her brother Hansel on a gruesome misadventure and their escape from a cannibalistic witch…
Finally, the delightfully named Sweet William by Rushlight is a tale of seven brothers, one wicked witch for a stepmother, and a faithful sister who will gladly spend years gathering nettles to weave into seven coats to break the enchantment on her siblings. The story of The Swan Brothers is retold with a surprise at the end…
Lots of whimsical humour, delightful characters drawn vividly in just a few deft scenes, my only disappointment with this collection is that the stories came to an end—I wanted more! But least the endings were all happy-ever-after ones.
Suitable for all ages from 9+ and with some lovely black and white illustrations.
Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) by Hope Mirrlees
Before The Shire or Narnia came, there was Lud-in-the-Mist. Published in 1926, this is the oldest fairy tale novel I've reviewed to date—almost a century old! But it has unobtrusively stood the test of time, and undoubtedly influenced a new generation of fantasy authors.
A line from the Odyssean epigraph at the opening of this story gives a clue as to its theme, as all good epigraphs should do: "magical voices called to a man from his ‘Land of Hearts Desire,’ and to which if he hearken it may be that he will return no more…”
But what does Homer have to do with little Lud-in-the-Mist? What does the tempting song of the Siren, the forbidden intoxication and lure of the soul, the Odyssean quest through immortal worlds and back again have to do with quiet, law-abiding Lud-in-the-Mist and its bourgouise inhabitants? Quite a lot, as it turns out...
Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital town of Dorimare, an unremarkable country in itself, except that it borders the country of Fairyland, though there are no longer any dangerous dealings between the two. Despite generations of intermarrying between the countries in times past, the greatest insult one could give to a Dorimarite is to call him ‘the son of a fairy’. When the Dorimare uprising removed all the nobility of the duchy, not only was the nobility outlawed and destroyed, the but the sensual excesses of fairy fruit and fairy ways went with them. Fairy has become an unspeakable word. And fairy fruit is absolutely forbidden by law, and the new mayor of the town is a stickler for the law.
But trouble comes, as it always does in stories, and this one comes in the form of the mayor's son.12-year-old Ranulph Chanticleer has a public meltdown at a dinner party and subsequently admits that it is due to having eaten fairy fruit. And young Ranulph is not the only victim of this dreadful calamity. Soon the daughters of the town are dancing off into fairyland to be lost forever. What is to be done, and who is to be trusted? Where is this influx of illicit fruit coming from? Who are the smugglers? Why are there rumours of sightings of the exiled Duke Aubrey, who was said to have fled into fairyland to escape the violent revolution? Are these sightings merely the awful visions of unhinged minds, or is something even more sinister happening? Is the local apothecary as helpful as he seems? Is poor Widow Gibberty truly innocent of the dreadful charge of murder brought against her? Mystery abounds, and Mayor Chanticleer must undertake a voyage into fairy land if he wants to recover his children and save Lud-in-the-Mist. But will he make it back with his mind intact? Will he make it back at all? It’s not very likely…
It’s not enough to say that this is a fantastical mystery, and a cosy fairytale thriller, it is also whimsical, charming, quirky, and written in the most gorgeous prose. Mirrlees lulls you into a nostalgic mood with lush descriptions of the natural world and all things tame and pastoral, and then she pokes you with a pinprick of satire and a neat story twist.
There is good reason why this is hailed as a fantasy classic, and it's impossible not to read it and think of the contemporary fantasy novels I've read that Lud-in-the-Mist reminds me of: Robin Mckinley's Spindle's End, Susanna Clarke's Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman's Stardust, and Charlotte E. English's Wonder Tales to name a few. I read this on my kindle, but now I've got to find a nice hardback copy to go on Favourite-Fairy-Tales shelf.
Handbook for Dragon Slayers (2013) by Merrie Haskell
13-year-old Matilda might be one of the Illustrious, but she is not a happy princess. Her father died while on crusade, and now her mother has failed to return home from a journey. Matilda's future responsibility of running her family's medieval fiefdom is beginning to close in.
Matilda has no desire to be saddled with such responsibility. She loves books and scribing, and dreams of being tucked away behind cloistered walls, free to write to her heart’s content with no demands upon her. (I have lots of days where I feel like that!)
Not only does she not want to be the future ruler of her people, everyone thinks she’s cursed due to her lamed foot, so why would they want her as their liege? And now her nasty cousin has decided to usurp her while she’s defenceless without her parents. So what’s a girl to do in such a situation? Run away and hunt dragons, of course, or, more specifically, accompany her loyal maid and a disgraced young squire on their quest to slay a dragon. Once she's helped them complete their venture, she can retire to a convent and forget all her troubles. Simple.
But the quiet writerly life she yearns for is not to be. Instead she's swept up into a whirlwind of terrifying adventures – kidnappings, forced marriage, a murderous sorcerer, not to mention the fire-breathing dragons they were so foolhardy to track down. She will have to face all her fears to find the courage to help save herself and her friends, and to understand her true worth as a princess of her people.
I loved every word of Handbook for Dragon Slayers: funny dialogue, an endearing heroine, not to mention magical horses, are just some of the delightful elements of this story. Germanic myths and folktales are woven through the narrative, and the setting of medieval Germany is enriched with historic detail. Add in some Faerie Wild Hunts and talking dragons and you have what I think is a perfect coming-of-age fairy tale with noble themes of friendship, heroism, and discovering one's self worth.
Once Upon a River (2019) by Diane Setterfield
Take a Dickensian cast—Gothic Dickens rather than comic Dickens— a historical 19th-century setting, add in a liberal amount of folklore, some post-modern psychological character depth, and that elusive quality of magical writing that blurs the borders of historical fiction with fairy tale fantasy, and you have Once Upon a River. And that’s me trying to convey in one (over-long) sentence what kind of subtle, complex, and wonderful story this is.
I often thought of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend while reading this. Both stories have the Thames river as a theme and setting, with a plot that turns upon the mystery of someone coming back from the dead—a mystery that alters the lives and reveals the hearts of all those connected to it. Themes of death and resurrection, the material body and the immaterial mystery of the heart, these overlap between both novels.
This is very much a character driven story, populated by the people who live along the river bank: an atheistic nurse and midwife, raised in a nunnery, searching for a rational explanation for something that cannot be explained; a woman innkeeper strong and hardy, with a dying husband and a fragile son; a wealthy couple shattered by grief at the loss of their only child, and bordering on emotional disintegration; a young woman, tormented by dark secrets and visions of her dead sister, and a mixed-race farmer, whose heart of gold is broken over a wicked son.
They all differ widely in status and education, but their stories slowly interconnect, like little tributaries finding their way together to merge into one river, having their source in the same place—their need for healing and love. They are all outsiders in some way, due to race, disability or trauma. What brings them together is the appearance of a child who appears one winter solstice night: a child who seems to be dead, but now is alive. Every person who comes into contact with her feels that she belongs to them in some way, while she seems to belong only to the River. Emotional wounds are opened, and life and death ebbs and flows between the characters as they come to terms with their own hearts, and rewrite their lives as new stories.
This is categorised as historical fiction, but it reads like a fairy tale; there are dragons, an uncanny pig, and a spectral ferryman who haunts the river either to save a life, or take it into the unknown. I loved the multi-layered themes: science and magic, life and death, the rational and the mysterious. The lines between madness and reality, joy and sorrow, the seen and the unseen are often fluid lines indeed.
This has some adult themes of abuse, but I didn’t find them gratuitous, and thought they were conveyed sensitively and without graphic imagery.
Letters from Father Christmas (1976) by J.R.R. Tolkien
It was such a pleasure to read this in the days leading up to Christmas. Also known as The Father Christmas Letters, this is a collection of letters written to the Tolkien children, John, Christopher, and Priscilla, between the years of 1920 and 1943 from Father Christmas, and published three years after Tolkien’s death. As the children get older, the letters get longer, telling of the adventures and calamities of hard-working Father Christmas and his friends and enemies.
The whimsical humour of Tolkien glows through the little stories that Father Christmas shares with the children, written in his shaky handwriting, because it is 'so cold', and he is so old. A magical world is brought to life as Nicholas Christmas describes his house at the North Pole, with The Snow Man as his gardener and the North Polar Bear as his chief assistant. North Polar Bear is always getting into scrapes, accidentally turning on the Northern Lights for two years in one go, and breaking the North Pole another year by climbing up it. He includes his own funny stories and messages to the children, written in his thick writing due to his 'fat paw'. During the years of World War II, Father Christmas tells of of terrible battles with goblins, and explosions going off, breaking the moon into pieces and shaking the stars out of place.
There are elves and gnomes, talking bears, and a magical golden trumpet for summoning help when the goblins attack; undoubtedly many of the ideas that would later be fully explored in The Lord of the Rings are here in germinal form, and what Tolkien work would be complete without a new language? North Polar Bear very helpfully writes out the pictorial goblin alphabet for the children to learn.
I hadn't realised that Tolkien was an amateur artist, his drawings of the North Pole and the escapades of Father Christmas are a delight; he even drew beautiful postage stamps on the envelopes and left them dusted with snow for the children to find. Humour radiates from the words and pictures, as does Tolkien’s obvious pleasure in his children. There is some nostalgia in the letters beginning with being addressed to the eldest child John, aged three at the time of the first letter. As John grows out of letter writing to Father Christmas, the middle child Christopher learns to read and write and takes up the family tradition. Eventually baby Priscilla comes of age, until she is the only remaining child at home. The last letter of 1943 from Father Christmas is one of farewell, as he writes that she will be hanging up her stocking ‘just once more’, but he will never forget her.
These letters bring back a era when childhood seemed a far simpler and innocent time than in today’s world. But then I recall that Tolkien was raising his young family between the horrors of the two world wars. Every generation has its own particular trials; nevertheless, I was left feeling that I wished I was a small child again with all the magic of Christmas that only a child who believes in Father Christmas feels.
Snow White and Rose Red (1989) by Patricia C. Wrede
This little gem of a book was a happy find. The Grimm fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red has always been a favourite of mine, one that I might explore in a retelling of my own one day, but this was the first novel length version I have read.
Wrede’s retelling is faithful to the Grimm’s tale, only departing from the original by substituting the gnarly dwarf with a gnarly human, but otherwise retaining the familiar elements, namely the two sisters dwelling with their widowed mother in a woodland cottage, and the mysterious talking bear that comes to beg shelter at their fireside by night. The story is fleshed out nicely with the sisters and mother cast as herb women; the sisters gather plants from the woods, which their mother prepares into remedies to sell to the townsfolk. Little do the townsfolk know that the herbal wares are so efficacious due to the plants being gathered across the border of Faerie. Such a fact has to be carefully guarded, or accusations of witchcraft might ensue, a crime that is punishable by death.
I especially liked the Elizabethan setting of the story, and the blend of history and fantasy. The author has taken the real-life historical persons of John Dee and Edward Kelley and cast them, most aptly, as a pair of meddling wizards. In real life John Dee was an alchemist and astrological advisor to Queen Elizabeth in an age when superstition and belief in magic overlapped with emerging scientific discoveries. Edward Kelley was famous (or infamous) for his claim to have discovered the secret of the philosopher’s stone enabling him to transmute base metals into gold. Kings, lords and emperors gave him their patronage but, needless to say, he had some trouble proving his claims, and history remembers him as a charlatan.
Another influence in Wrede's story is that of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night's Dream; the widow mother in Wrede's story is Widow Arden, a nod to Shakespeare’s magical forest, while the sisters pass in and out of Faerie, the domain of the Faerie Queen. As in A Midsummer Night's Dream there are parallel stories unfolding in the Faerie kingdom and the human world, while a faerie character called Robin makes an appearance (Robin Goodfellow, aka Shakespeare’s Puck). The dialogue might not be to everyone’s taste as it has an Elizabethan style of speech with a lot of thees and thous, but I didn’t mind that at all.
I enjoyed this blend of fairy tale and historical setting. It's a shame this 30-year-old story hasn't been updated as an ebook yet, but If you don’t object to a Tudor flavour in the dialogue, and you do enjoy a well-told tale with a romantic happy ending it is well worth sourcing a paperback copy.
The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
Ah, The Princess Bride – how hard-hearted would a person have to be not to fall utterly in love with Westley and Buttercup’s tale of True Love and High Adventure?
When I had a litter of puppies a few years back (or rather my dog did) I told myself I would not name the pups, so I didn’t get too attached to the ones who were going to new homes, yet I ended up naming them after characters from The Princess Bride. I still can’t understand why Buttercup’s new owner didn’t want to keep such an adorable name, something about sounding silly when out with his shooting pals… Anyhow, I digress from the story, but then again, so does William Goldman in his unusual novel structure of The Princess Bride, except that Goldman’s embedded anecdotes are part of the fiction, whereas I really did have an utterly gorgeous puppy called Westley.
So in the fairytale land of Florin, a farmer’s daughter named Buttercup is growing up into the most beautiful woman in the world. The farm’s lowly slave, known as Farm Boy, happens to be growing up into a supremely handsome, brave, clever young man who is also hopelessly in love with Buttercup. When Buttercup finally awakens to his charms, she gives him her heart, stops calling him Farm Boy and starts calling him Westley, and thus he leaves to make his fortune that he might return for her hand.
Unfortunately for the lovers a few problems get thrown into their path of true love, namely an evil prince who decides that Buttercup is the only girl for him, a sadistic count who wants to torture Westley to death, pirates, ruthless assassins, a giant, a wizard swordsman, vicious creatures galore, and pretty much everything else that can thwart our protagonists. There is also a lot of comedy, and the characters are unforgettable and endearing (except for the evil prince and sadistic count - they are unforgettable, but definitely not endearing).
Goldman doesn’t tell the story in a linear fashion, he constructs a literary conceit of the story being an abridgment of a tale by the late Morgenstern: a Florinese writer who drowned the original story in an excess of waffle and subversive political diatribes. The narrator, posing as Goldman, claims to have cut out these unnecessary sections of the original book to leave only the ‘good parts’ version of the story. This conceit is further elaborated by stories of Goldman’s personal life, including a tussle with Stephen King over who gets to abridge the sequel. These ‘authorial’ interruptions are very funny, and have the effect of drawing out the suspense of the ‘real’ story. It’s a very clever construction, not that The Princess Bride needs anything extra beyond the story itself, and if the extra parts don’t interest the reader, they can skim over them and abridge Goldman’s abridgement of Morgenstern.
Swift (2012) by R. J. Anderson
I live in Cornwall where folkore and myth are rich: Tristram and Iseult, King Arthur and his knights, Jack the Giantkiller; mermaids, giants and piskies abound in local legends, so a fantasy novel with piskies set in modern Cornwall?—yes please!
Ivy is a piskey, living underground in an abandoned wheal mine with her community. While the male piskeys mine and hunt, life is one of confinement for the females; it’s not safe to go aboveground for fear of wicked spriggans and treacherous faeries. Memories of battles between piskies and faeries in times past have left fear and bitterness in the community, the history being passed down the generations by the droll-teller and his tales.
When Ivy’s mother is stolen by a spriggan, and other members of the clan begin disappearing, Ivy finds herself caught up in a dangerous venture. Mysteries unravel, startling revelations are made, Ivy’s whole identity is not what she thought, and neither is the history she has been brought up with.
This was an exciting tale of betrayal and family loyalty, vengeance and forgiveness, identity and transformation. Ivy must discern who her friends and enemies really are, and who she can trust. The story twists and turns, building to a dramatic climax and a surprising ending, with a sequel book to follow. A fast-paced read suitable for middle grade+.
The Door in the Hedge (1981) by Robin Mckinley
This is a collection of four stories of various lengths. Two are original fairy tales, and two are retellings. I generally prefer full length novels, but I’ve read so many good novellas of late that I thought I’d give these short stories a read, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Stolen Princess is the first of Mckinley’s original fairy tales: In the last mortal kingdom, before Faerieland begins, there is a blessing in the land that makes it richer in produce and more beautiful than other mortal lands, but there also lies a shadow of fear and grief, for now and then a child disappears. Baby boys vanish from their cradles, and daughters disappear from their beds when they reach a marriageable age. No one knows where the children go, whether they are treated well or if they suffer and grieve for their families. The only thing that is known is they have been taken by faeries. When the beloved princess is taken from her palace bed, the king and queen refuse to accept their loss, and they venture forth to find their daughter in the unseen land of Faerie.
I thought this was an enchanting tale, bringing to life the fairyland that I longed to see as a child - not a dark faerie world, but a beautiful, magical one, reminiscent of the mystery of heaven - the place of otherness that stirs the imagination. In this story it is the power of the love of mother, daughter and sister that breaks through the invisible boundary between the worlds, bringinging unity and ending the cycle of grief.
The Princess and the Frog is a short retelling of The Frog Prince. There’s no frog-kissing in this version but the familiar motifs are present, such as the frog aiding the princess in return for the right to live with her at the palace. In this story there is a malevolent force at work that only the princess and the frog can overcome together to achieve a Happy Ever After for themselves and the kingdom.
The Hunting of the Hind is another original fairy tale, and tells the story of a beloved prince and an overlooked princess: When the crown prince and his men go out to hunt, their hunt is sometimes brought to a fearful end by the appearance of a golden hind. Beautiful though the hind is, terror and madness are in her wake to afflict those who attempt to ride after her. When the prince himself is brought to the brink of death by his pursuit of the hind, only one person in the kingdom - the young princess - has the courage to seek to unravel the mystery of the hind and try to break its curse that the prince might be saved.
A romantic tale of virtue, and of true love as the power to end curses; it's the third story in this collection where it is the princess who does the saving.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses is the final and longest of the stories: A retired and lonely soldier hears of the mystery of the twelve daughters of the king. A chance encounter with an old woman, who gives him a cloak of invisibility, causes him to take his chances and attempt to solve the mystery. The reward for achieving this is the hand of a princess and the inheritance of the crown. Every man thus far has failed, and has never been the same again.
The familiar and beloved story is retold from the point of view of the soldier. Mckinley’s version employs her usual striking, sensory language, creating the mystery and atmosphere of the story while presenting the soldier as a humble and true hero.
Four beautifully written stories set in magical, fairyland worlds, and suitable for all ages.
The Golem and the Djinni (2013) by Helene Wecker
What happens when a golem loses her master and is presented with the unchartered prospect of free will? What happens when a djinni, a shape-shifting spirit of fire who only serves his own pleasures, has his free will taken away and must live as a man? And what happens when these two unlikely creatures meet?
It’s New York in 1899, a colourful immigrant community full of tragic histories, merging cultures, shadowy quarters of crime, and families trying to make a better life for themselves. But no one could guess that among the growing population a wicked wizard poses as a kindly old man, and two creatures walk and live and work among them who are not even human.
A djinni trapped in a jar for 1000 years has been accidentally freed by a tinsmith in Little Syria. The djinni may be loosed from his prison, but he’s still magically bound by iron in a man’s body, and unable to shapeshift or take his true fiery form. A golem, created by a Prussian Jew using forbidden Kabbalistic magic, is freed by her master’s death on the transatlantic steamship, and rescued from the streets by an elderly widowed rabbi. The creatures eventually find each other, and an unlikely friendship is formed, despite their oppositional characters.
The golem has a childlike quality to her as she struggles to navigate the complexities of humans and their desires, and it seems there is much grey area to negotiate. She's a sophisticated creation, her creator being a corrupt, but powerful magician, but she still harbours the potential for destruction with her elemental, superhuman strength. Meanwhile, the djinni finds humans exasperating; he’s used to the empty expanses of the Syrian desert and the freedom of a shapeshifting form, now he's in the close confines of a human body and of a heavily populated city. He's a seducing, pleasure-seeking spirit, in contrast to the dutiful, self-negating golem, yet they make an unlikely bond of friendship while the mystery of the djinn’s enslavement and the identity of the evil magician that pursues him unfolds.
Within this blend of fairy tale and historical fiction (my very favourite genre-mix) is a story exploring the awful power of life and death and creation in the hands of men. The framework is that of a simply told story, yet complex questions of existentialism are effortlessly explored: is cheating death the answer to the fear of death? Is reincarnation a second chance, or merely an evasion of the natural order? If there is good and evil, then there must be reward and judgement, else there is only nothing beyond selfish desire that heeds no consequences to anyone else. So many interesting themes abound within this fairy tale: the comforts and challenges of religion and community, cultural displacement and homesickness, the meaning of shared humanity, the nature of humanity. How much free will do any of us have, and what is it that makes us human?
I loved this eccentric and gentle love story rich with themes with a vivid historical setting. I was sorry to leave the golem and djinni behind, and eagerly await the sequel.
Fairest Son (2018) by H. S. J. Williams
Two faerie kings - one evil, one good. A prophesied child that will bring an end to the ancient war between the kingdoms, and a human girl with a hidden past who gets caught in the middle of it all.
When a young huntress meets an immortal faerie in the depths of the woods, she warily accepts his unusual offer of shelter and food. Thus begins an unlikely friendship that will twist on betrayal and forgiveness and take some surprising turns.
Fairest Son is a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with a beautiful prince rather than a princess. The familiar tropes of Snow White are all present, but reworked in imaginative ways, translated into settings of snowbound caves, hidden faerie courts, and an ominous loch harbouring a monster in its depths. Irish myth and legend also lends a mysterious Celtic feel to the story.
While only a novella length book, the author achieves a lot in a short space by reworking a familiar fairy tale into something deeper: a Christian allegory of the fight between good and evil. The contrast between the dark Unseelie Court and the Seelie Court of light represents this battle. Immortal life and death are the stakes, and the king of darkness is a cruel and ruthless enemy.
The Sword in the Stone (1938) by T.H. White
"The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it."
Thus, Merlyn’s delightful philosophy of education is summed up in The Sword in the Stone. This book can be read as a standalone, but it's also the first in a four-part series: The Once and Future King.
The Sword in the Stone follows the childhood of The Wart, a young put-upon squire to the older Kay. Wart has a brotherly relationship with the somewhat obnoxious Kay, but while Kay has the prestige of being the son and heir to Sir Ector, Wart (real name Arthur) is of unknown parentage, and a bit of an underdog-Cinderella character. However, Wart is not a goody-two-shoes Cinderella, he is kind and rather adorable, but he’s also gently flawed and plucky, and will get into fisticuffs with the lordly, overbearing Kay when the need arises.
Wart's fairy godmother shows up in the form of the wizard Merlyn who appoints himself tutor to Kay and Wart, but it’s Wart that Merlyn gives the benefit of his wisdom to. A medieval education for a knight-to-be and his squire includes all the usual things: fencing, archery, tilting, hawking, chivalry and hunting, but Merlyn considers natural science to be the most valuable subject, and his means of teaching are literally magical, as he transforms Wart into various birds, animals, fish and insects in a series of lively adventures. The adventures are more than just for fun, however. Merlyn knows what Wart's destiny is: to be King Arthur, thus his lessons give him experiential examples of different kinds of rule and leadership. He sees tyranny in the rule of the pike, the dire communism of the ants, and the peaceable comradeship of the wild geese. Wart's transformations expand his world beyond the ordinary senses and transform him from child towards man, from innocence towards wisdom.
I loved the setting of 13th-century feudal England. Sir Ector has a humble castle and estate on the edge of Forest Sauvage ‘an impenetrable forest’, in the days when wolves, wild boars, small dragons, outlaws, mad men and magicians roam the densely wooded land. The details of medieval life are as meticulous as any historical novel, but it’s sprinkled with eccentric anachronisms via Merlyn who lives backwards through time, having visited many eras of the future.There’s a wry humour running through the narrative. No one is truly evil (people do get nastier in the next book), even the inept, questing old knight, Sir Pellinore, hunting a vicious beast, has a fondness for the monster it stalks. The only scene I didn't enjoy was the very descriptive wild boar hunt, which left me feeling sorry for the poor boar and the dogs. (I was pleased to see in the opening of Book 2 that Merlyn has become a vegetarian, and no longer approves of hunting!)
Wart and Kay eventually outgrow the need for a tutor. Kay is knighted, Wart resigns himself to a life of subordination as his squire, until a strange thing happens in London - King Uther Pendragon dies, leaving no heir, and a sword, in an anvil, in a stone, has appeared outside a church. Enscribed on this magical sword reads: ‘Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England.’ Thus, Kay and his squire head off to join the tourney in London, and obviously Kay tries his luck..and fails, but Wart aka Arthur…well, you know how it ends, especially if you’ve seen the old 1963 Disney film of this story (feel free to break into a chorus of Higitus Figitus migitus mum - Presti-digi-tonium!) As Wart pulls the sword out of the stone and transforms into Arthur, he is aided and cheered on by all the animals he has met through his education.
I loved Wart, but my favourite character was Merlyn, reminiscent of Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey and Radagast the Brown with his gruffness and affinity with animals. He’s both bumbling and wise, he knits and he time-travels and he teaches ‘insight’ by ‘backsight’.
I think the Disney film caused this book to be labelled a children’s classic, but I would rate it as YA+. I think it would be a difficult read for most children, being quite densely written in parts, mature in some of its humour and themes, and lacking the fast-paced narrative drive that modern readers expect. It’s witty, whimsical, slightly madcap, and has a lot of words I didn’t know the meaning of: tintinnabulation, scombre, fewmet and tumulus, anyone? Merlyn gives the reader as much of an education in language and natural history as he does young Arthur
Zel (1988) by Donna Jo Napoli
This is a beautifully written retelling of Rapunzel. Zel is a short novel with lean, sparse prose, written in the less usualpresent tense and told through three characters’ viewpoints. This combination of complex technique and sinewystorytelling makes for an elegant and powerful tale.
Zel is a girl on the cusp of adolescence, living with her mother in an isolated alm in the Swiss mountains. It’s a happyexistence, and the relationship with her mother is close and loving, but Zel longs for more social connection. What Zeldoesn’t yet know is that her beloved mother is not really her mother at all. ‘Mother’ is a woman who sold her soul to thedevil to gain her heart’s desire: a daughter. And that daughter was taken from her real mother by witchcraft.
A rare visit to town for Zel results in an encounter with a handsome young nobleman. A romantic spark is ignited betweenthem, and nothing will ever be the same again. When the witch discerns that Zel is moving away from the innocence anddependence of childhood towards another love, she determines to do what she believes is the only right thing: she mustkeep Zel hidden away, in a tower without a door, where no one will ever find her until Zel is ready to trade her own soulfor a life with Mother.
Zel’s descent towards madness during her isolation is sensitively shown, and the corruption of the witch’s ‘love’ for Zel ismade apparent. Love does not seek to control or exclude all others in jealousy. Real love does not take life and freedom,but gives it. These themes are beautifully shown through the story. True love does win the day, in fairytale fashion, andafter many trials and trauma, Zel does gain the relationships and community she longs for. The ending doesn’t quiteclarify what becomes of the witch, but her last act is one of mercy, and there is a hint that she may have found release andpeace in having realised the real nature of love before her own death.
This is marketed as a children's novel, but I would consider it quite mature in its themes.
Ombria in Shadow (2002) by Patricia A. Mckillip
Ombria, a royal city with a shadowy, parallel underworld. A city of hidden streets, a palace of mysterious doors, a royal family riddled with deadly secrets, but the secret of the Regent's power is the darkest of all...
When the ruling prince of Ombria dies in suspicious circumstances, his five-year-old heir to the throne is taken charge of by his Regent aunt – a fearsome woman – some call her a pirate queen, some say a witch, but everyone agrees, she is not a woman to be messed with. It's easy to say who the villain of Ombria is, but I would be hard-pressed to say which protagonist the story belongs to – it could be Mag, a young sorceress’s apprentice, or it could be Ducon, the illegitimate nephew of the late prince. Perhaps it’s neither, and the story belongs to Ombria.
Ducon, in the above-ground world, spends his days trying to avoid being dragged into deadly plots of rebellion, while carrying about charcoal and paper to draw places that no one else can see. Meanwhile, Mag, in the hidden underground world, meddles with her mistress’s death-spells if she thinks a life is worth saving. History and magic weave together as Ducon and Mag cross paths, sharing the need to discover their true history, their real identity, and to save the young princeling from his aunt's destruction. They must cross invisible boundaries of time and memory, shadow and light, illusions and ghosts. They will navigate worlds of conspiracies and danger in their struggle for freedom.
The world building in this story is masterful. I loved the secret doors between worlds and portals between time. But I also loved the characters and their relationships: the tavern keeper’s daughter, violently displaced as the mistress of the late prince; the child prince, whose life is in danger; Mag, who is not sure if she is human or a creation of her powerful sorceress-mistress; Faey the sorceress, callous and amoral, but who's surprised to find that she has a heart after all, and Ducon, noble and kind, but in denial as to his call as a hero. Can these characters work together to save those they love and to rescue Ombria from the tyranny of the Regent witch?
This is a remarkable work of imagination, with an eccentric but satisfying ending, though I would have liked to know a little more of what happened next. Mckillip’s style is poetic and lyrical. She creates a rich, unsettling world that keeps you wondering and guessing and never quite sure what’s around the corner or what will happen next. There’s a dreaminess to the fantasy, yet you have to pay attention, as the plot is not always spelled out, but given in clues and mysterious glimpses. Mckillip gives you all the clues you need, but you must put them together, and sometimes they only click with hindsight. There’s a lot of delicious wry humour in the characters, especially from Faey, the wildly eccentric sorceress, who changes her face to suit her mood, and from Mag, the plucky young heroine.
My only complaint about this wonderful story is that the publishers have changed the cover art, and it's hard to track down a copy with the original and utterly gorgeous Kinuko Y Craft artwork – what were they thinking of? Craft and Mckillip belong together! You'll see that I've included the Craft cover above.
A Branch of Silver A Branch of Gold (2016) by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
This captivating story is opened by a mysterious narrator, able to observe both the mortal world and the world of Faerie. She tells us that the boundary between the two worlds has been breached; a terrible curse has opened the gates, and so the story begins...
Heloise – feisty, angry, passionate, and the 14-year-old daughter of a peasant flax-farmer is the unlikely heroine of the tale; she's the promised curse-breaker who may or may not succeed in healing the breach between human and faerie. Many have gone before her and failed. Some never to return. Her even more unlikely helpers include her reclusive grandmother, the aristocratic and sickly heir to the lord of the manor, a capricious sylph, and a magical guardian of the world between mortal and faerie. But even with assistance, Heloise faces trials and tests that push her beyond her mortal strength.
And what is this curse that has crossed the divide? Centuries past, a faery princess gave up her immortality to marry a man. Her mother, the fearsome faerie queen, has cursed the bloodline of this union. Every generation a daughter is taken from the mortal world and kept bound in an enchantment where they must dance all night in the court of the queen.
The story is a reworking of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. It's a loose reworking, with some inverted tropes. As with all A E Stengl’s writing, the story is multi-layered; there are powerful themes of life and death, and of what lies beyond death; themes of grief, forgiveness, inner strength, and the power of sacrificial love. The setting is that of feudal France, and the historical details of this medieval world provide a wonderful contrast to the parallel, fantastical world of Faerie.
I've enjoyed everything I've read so far by A E Stengl, and this is my favourite novel of hers to date – definitely one that goes on my To Be Read Again shelf. The story is complete in itself, but has an ending that promises further stories to come in this world. I hope that's the case, because I would love to go back and follow Heloise on more adventures.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories (2006) by Susanna Clarke
This is a collection of fairy tales with a goodly number of leading ladies. There are brave ladies, feisty ladies, mysterious, dangerous, clever, and magical ladies. And they need to be, for their stories are set between the 15th- and 19th-century, where all manner of fates might threaten women in the forms of forced marriage, abduction, and unpleasant husbands and fathers.
The fairies in these tales are not the sweet bottom-of-the-garden kind (actually, one is, but she’s definitely not sweet), they are tricksy, beguiling and dangerous. Some use charm and charisma, and some brute force. There are no little flower fairies, there are rapacious fairies, ugly baby sprites, egotistical and wicked beings. Plenty of wry humour softens the horror elements, but Faerie is a very dangerous place, and the paths into it are entered at one’s peril.
Johnathan Strange makes a welcome reappearance when he meets the three ladies of Grace Adieu. Good thing he behaves in a gentlemanlike manner, for woe betide any man who doesn’t when these surprising women are about. In Mrs Mabb, a young lady must outwit a fairy queen to rescue her lost love, and in The Duke of Wellington a great man’s destiny is compromised when he offends an innkeeper’s wife.
There’s an Austenesque Pride & Prejudice theme in Mr Simonelli : a young and pompous clergyman meets with a family of five unmarried daughters, and determines to marry one of them – a clergyman who has a right of inheritance over the family estate. But the titular character has come into a neighbourhood with some odd inhabitants, and is rightly worried to discern a strange family lineage to them – a lineage of ‘other blood’. If Mr Simonelli wants to have his pick of the five young ladies, he must protect them from a dreadful fate by outwitting a powerful fairy. And which of the sisters shall he choose for a wife? Well, perhaps he’ll just choose them all…
In Tom Brightwood there is a friendship between a six-foot charismatic fairy and a mortal Jewish doctor, and Mary Queen of Scots makes an appearance in Antickes & Frets, as she tries in vain to usurp the queen of England through embroidering curses. The final fairy tale features John Uskglass, the Raven King, another character from Strange & Norrell. The Raven King might be ‘the greatest magician that ever lived’, but even he comes unstuck when heavenly powers decide to teach him a lesson in humility in this comic tale, where the underdog gets some justice.
This is a word-perfect book of grown-up fairy tales, and, better still – a grown-up book with pictures! – with illustrations by Charles Vess.
Wolfskin (2015) by W. R. Gingell
Rose is an adolescent girl who’d rather be romping outdoors than sat at home sewing with her feminine sister. Her sister longs for romance and marriage – Rose would sooner be a cutlass-wielding pirate. So when the village witch picks out Rose for an apprentice, Rose is up for a new adventure, and off to the mysterious forest she goes to begin it!
Good thing our heroine is feisty and fearless, for she will need to use all her wits and courage in overcoming the unforeseen dangers that lie before her. Life in the forest can be exceedingly dangerous: vicious wolves, dark fairies, and powerful magical forces for good and evil are at work, and Rose will learn her apprenticeship the hard way.
Wolfskin is partly a Little Red Riding Hood retelling, and has some elements of Beauty and the Beast. I really liked Rose, and enjoyed her coming-of-age journey from tomboy to a powerful young woman who decides that romance isn’t such a bad thing after all.
The setting of the forest is truly magical. Gingell’s writing has a lyrical way of presenting abstract, supernatural experiences that seem to speak directly to some part of the imagination not often stirred. In this respect it was reminiscent of the fantasy writing of Robin Mckinley. No matter how strange and fantastical Rose’s adventures were, I felt I was swept up with her and carried along for the ride.
The ending was unusual, and not what I was expecting, but that is a large part of the charm of Wolfskin – you never quite know what twist or turn the tale is going to take next. It was an exciting story to be immersed into and I was sorry to leave such a fascinating world behind.
Queen Zixi of Ix: Or, the Story of the Magic Cloak (1904) by L. Frank Baum
If you could have one wish, what would it be?
The fairy queen is bored of dancing by moonlight, and desires her fairies to think of some new diversion. The result is the creation of a magic cloak, which shall grant its mortal wearer one wish. Let the magical mischief begin!
This lesser-known work of Baum's is set in the neighbouring kingdoms of Oz, in the lands of Noland and Ix. The old king of Noland is dead, and he has no heir, but an archaic law causes a young orphan boy to be plucked from poverty and obscurity and crowned the new ruler. Meanwhile the fairies' magical cloak falls into the hands of his grieving little sister, who wishes only to be happy again. Henceforth she is no longer a grieving orphan, but the beloved Princess Fluff who can have as many pretty dresses and dolls as she wishes.
The magic cloak passes from person to person, without their awareness of its powers, resulting in a series of comic scenes as various members of the court wish for things with bizarre consequences. But over the border of the next kingdom, the witch-queen of Ix hears of this fairy gift and sets her heart on gaining it for herself. She might be an artful witch and centuries old, but she is not clever enough to outwit the young princess; her schemes of subterfuge and sneaky identity-changes fail and she resorts to war.
What chance do a pair of orphan children have against a witch at the head of an army twice the size of their own? They have only a little magical help, but the cloak never seems to be around when they need it. Talking dogs, winged ladies, and a ten-foot army general all aid the young king and add to the fun. But can they defeat a vain witch-queen whose beauty is as famous as it is false? And even if they do defeat the queen of Ix, there are still fearsome, quarrelsome creatures ready to invade the peaceful kingdom of Noland.
But this is a children's fairy tale, so fear not – there must be a happy ending. And this is Baum, so there must be humour and quirky word play and fantastical story twists and turns. Eccentric characters and foolish, or reasonably good-natured, villains make this a sweet fairy tale, a little simpler and gentler than The Wizard of Oz. L.Frank Baum considered this the most original fairy tale he had written, and it is delightful, but I would still consider Oz to be his masterwork.
A parable about the wisdom of not getting everything you wish for, beautifully illustrated by Frederick Richardson. You can still buy it, but you can also read it for free at Gutenberg.org.
Ten Thousand Thorns (2018) by Suzannah Rowntree
When Princess Morning Light is born to the Coiling Dragon King a great celebration is prepared, to which the EightImmortals are invited to bestow their blessings on the infant princess But only seven give a blessing - the eighth proclaimsa curse that will cause the princess to pierce herself on the Golden Phoenix Sword on her sixteenth birthday, and enter intoa profound meditation for a hundred years.
Sound familiar? Yes - Sleeping Beauty - but with martial arts and magical swords - yay!
Ten Thousand Thorns is a novella-length retelling of The Sleeping Beauty, or Little Brier Rose as the Grimm version iscalled. An imperial oriental age provides a fantastical setting to this story. Mountain temples and martial secrets abound,while characters bear such delightful names as: Peaceful-Countenance Lan, Lovely Flower, and Wild Goose. Immortalgods and goddesses might drop in on flying cranes, prophecies await fulfilment, warring rebels clash in displays of martialarts, and the kingdom struggles to free itself from a usurping Emperor that there might be peace to All-Under-Heaven.
Clouded Sky is a young martial artist thrust into the role of unwilling Hero. A mysterious girl, known as Iron Maiden,with stunning martial skill, embroils him in a quest. She wants him to seek out the fabled meditating princess and awakenher, now that a hundred years has passed. Waking the princess will restore the long-lost martial arts secrets that are neededto quell the evil emperor. Such a quest is fraught with danger at every turn, and Clouded Sky is unsure who he can trust ina world of rebels and renegades, where everyone seems to serve their own truth.
I loved this imaginative retelling. Although it was novella length, it was a satisfying story. The pace was fast, the settingwas immersive; there was action, romance, heroism and mysticism in abundance. I thoroughly enjoyed SuzannahRowntree’s storytelling, and will subsequently be reading her other fairy tale retellings in quick succession!
Enchantment (1999) by Orson Scott Card
A fast-paced, time-travelling retelling of Sleeping Beauty.
Ivan is a Russian emigrant living in America. His doctoral research into Russian folklore takes him back to his native homeland where a fantastical encounter with a sleeping princess plunges him into a real-life fairy tale.
Ivan might have his beautiful princess, but it’s going to be a long hard journey to reach any kind of a happy ending. His crown princess isn’t sure he’s cut out to be a future king, and neither does anyone else. What does a 20th-century academic know about sword wielding and leading his people into battle? And to make make matters worse, the vilest and cruellest of witches — Baba Yaga herself — seems determined to kill him in the nastiest way possible, and anyone else who gets in her way.
I enjoyed this mix of Russian fairy tales. Ivan is a very likeable young man. Themes of identity, the infallibility of history, the shift from Russian paganism to religious orthodoxy all add to the layers of the novel. There’s lots of wry humour, and an unfolding love story is at the heart of it all.
In terms of content, I would rate this as being a mature YA or a NA novel.
The Goose Girl (2003) by Shannon Hale
Shannon Hale’s goose girl retelling is a classic. I haven’t read it for a long time, and it was great to revisit it.
The crown princess of Kildenree is not quite sure who she is meant to be. She doesn’t feel queenly or at home in her courtly life, there is something different about her - others would say, something strange. She has an affinity with animals and the elements, able to communicate with them, while forced to hide her ability or be punished for it. Her childhood is lonely and isolated within the castle grounds, and she has only two friends: her lady in waiting, and her beloved horse - and one of them is not the friend she thought they were.
At 16, everything changes. She is stripped of her title of crown princess - passed over in the succession for her younger brother - and sent away on a long and arduous journey to the next kingdom to make a diplomatic marriage with a prince she has never met, and knows nothing about.
The journey ends in violence and betrayal, and the princess must flee for her life, and live hidden away as a humble goose girl, until she figures out who she is, what she wants, and what she must do to gain justice.
I enjoyed the emotional journey of the princess/goose girl. She is brave, but not brash. She is sensitive and vulnerable, but does not sink into self-pity. The world is well constructed, and although the romance is predictable, it’s predictable in a nice way - I would have been very disappointed if it hadn’t ended as it did. If I had one complaint, it would be that there was a little too much stabbing going on, but I guess the bad guys have to do what bad guys do!
Goose Chase (2001) by Patrice Kindl
This was a fun, light-hearted romp through fairy tale land. I liked the sparky goose girl heroine. We first meet her locked up in a tower, Rapunzel-style, besieged by a pair of unwanted suitors - one dippy prince and one murderous king, to be precise. A succession of capers ensues, involving escaping from dank dungeons, guarded towers, and man-eating ogresses.
As with all respectable fairy tales there was a good deal of magical intervention to aid our heroine in times of peril: fairy godmothers, helpful animals, and all manner of enchanted devices.
Along the way our goose girl falls a little in love and uncovers her own unexpected and transformative history.
All in all - a charming MG read!
The Bird and the Sword (2016) by Amy Harmon
The Bird and the Sword is not exactly a fairy tale retelling, but it is a beautifully written fantasy that has a fairy tale feel. It shares themes with Beauty and the Beast, and there are references to people spinning straw into gold, so for me it felt firmly rooted in the fairy tale tradition, whilst being an original story.
We follow Lady Lark’s story through her own narration, a narration that is made poignant by the fact that she herself is mute, having never spoken since the day she witnessed her mother’s violent death. Lark is beset by difficulties from earliest childhood. Not only is she motherless, but her father treats her with disdain and keeps her almost a prisoner. Her one ally is a faithful troll who watches over her, and understands her wordless communication.
As a young woman Lark is taken hostage by the king, and used as a pawn against her father to pressure him into providing support for a battle against a vicious and fantastical enemy. Thus begins what I think of as the Beauty and the Beast theme: Lark being held against her will in the castle of a king. But this young, handsome king is not always human – he is cursed, and Lark, with her strange and secret gifting, may be the only one who can save him.
The story is deeply romantic; there are some ardent kissing scenes, but I would still describe it as a clean romance. There is sufficient resistance and initial resentment on Lark’s part to prevent the romance from being uncomfortable – the idea of falling in love with your captor is problematic – but as with Beauty and the Beast, Lark learns to love the real man beneath the rough exterior and the curse, while he also learns to love her and respect her in return.
The story moves at a good pace, and the unfolding romance is passionate and believable. There is action a-plenty, high emotion, a strong hero and heroine, all set within a kingdom populated with fairy tale creatures as well as humans with unusual gifts. It contains all the ingredients I love in a story, and it all works together to make a gripping and moving tale.
The Princess Curse (2011) by Merrie Haskell
The Princess Curse is an intriguing blend of the myth of Persephone and Hades, and the fairy tales The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Beauty and the Beast.
In the royal castle of Sylvian twelve princesses are bound under a mysterious and powerful curse that causes them to wear out their slippers every night. Anyone who attempts to discover their secret either disappears or sinks into a state of sleep, from which they never awake. Any attempt to separate the princesses from the castle results in disastrous consequences.
Thirteen-year-old Reveka is the new royal herbalist’s apprentice, who's determined to find out how to solve the mystery and break the curse, that she might win the substantial reward. Her first challenge is to find a way to use her herbal arts to make herself invisible - but that mean feat is the easy part of the task she has set herself - for the curse is worse than she could have imagined, and the underground world she follows the princesses into harbours a terrible secret.
Reveka is a very likable, plucky heroine, and I enjoyed being drawn into her adventures. The themes of life, death and rebirth were fascinating; the exploration of an alternate underworld that has parallel influences with the real world above was also interesting. If I have one criticism, it's that the ending was a little bit unsatisfying - as though it was just the end of the first part, and a sequel was to follow. But despite this, it was a compelling and skillful weaving of fairy tale and myth.
The Gold Son (2017) by Carrie Anne Noble
I enjoyed Carrie Anne Noble’s first novel, The Mermaid’s Sister, but I loved her second one Gold Son.
I can’t think of any other novel I’ve read that explores the folk-mythology of Irish Leprechauns, so this seemed a very original theme; I will never think about the 'little people' quite the same again!
Tommin is cursed at birth to be part leprechaun, something he has no idea of until he reaches his teens, and a strange visitor calls upon him to invite him on a journey. He knows the stranger is trouble, but his back is against the wall, and he feels he has no choice. So begins a descent into a life of addiction and crime, and as centuries pass by, his hope of escape seems less likely.
The characters were great – the Leprechaun villain was particularly devilish, and it took me no time at all to fall in love with the hero and heroine: Tommin and Eve. The backdrop of 19th-century Ireland was a perfect fairy tale setting. Then came the magical underground world, and all seemed to be comfortably and enjoyably following on in the usual fantasy settings, until I was just as surprised as Tommin to find myself catapulted into the 21st-century in a bit of time-travelling that I didn't see coming! But despite my aversion to modern-day settings, I thought it worked really well, and cast a whole new layer of meaning to the timeless theme of Tommin’s journey to redemption.
The whole story was full of twists and turns and kept me on the just-one-more-chapter ride for an entire Sunday afternoon until I reluctantly reached 'The End'.
The Castle Behind Thorns (2014) by Merrie Haskell
I found this retelling of The Sleeping Beauty both mysterious and compelling from the first page. I loved the medieval setting – and is there any setting more deliciously fairy-tale-like than an enchanted medieval castle?
Sand (short for Alexandre) is a thirteen-year-old blacksmith’s son who finds himself supernaturally transported into an abandoned castle, surrounded by impregnable walls of vicious thorns. The castle is lifeless, and he has to draw on hitherto-unknown resources to not only survive in his captivity, but find a way to break the curse that holds him there.
The only other living person in the castle is the newly awakened daughter of the long-dead count; she had been thought dead since the time the curse settled upon the castle. Together they must solve the mystery of the curse that binds the castle, and understand what power is needed to break it.
This is marketed as a middle-grade novel, but I found it to be more YA-level in its themes and language. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am off to read Merrie Haskell’s other two novels. Don’t you just love it when you find a new author to read?
Beauty (1978) by Robin McKinley
Rose Daughter (1997) by Robin McKinley
I thought I’d read both of Robin McKinley’s retellings and compare them. Judging by book reviews, I think it’s fair to say that Beauty is the more popular of the two, but I shall have to make my own mind up…
It’s hard to believe that Beauty was first published nearly forty years ago. I’m sure the categories of YA fiction or Fairy Tale Retellings didn't exist then, so Robin Mckinley was something of a pioneer in what are popular genres today.
The story most of us think of when we think of Beauty and the Beast is that which has devolved from the 18th-century French versions. Beauty follows most of the classic tale in its retelling of the wealthy merchant father who suffers a disastrous business failure, throwing the family into poverty; the father then losing his way on a long journey, and finding shelter in a magical castle where he’s confronted by a terrifying beast who demands his youngest daughter in return for his own life, and the voluntary self-sacrifice of the youngest daughter in going to the enchanted castle. Also present are the motifs of the forbidden and magical rose, and the beast's daily request that Beauty marries him, and her daily refusal.
The enchanted castle Beauty finds herself in in Beauty is so wonderful, I wouldn’t mind being immured there for a spell myself! All the cooking and housework magically done, leaving Beauty free to read to her heart’s content and to enjoy the beautiful gardens and estate - sigh! As with all versions of Beauty and the Beast, however, I still struggled with accepting that Beauty could actually want to be married to the Beast. There’s something about the bestiality element that makes me uncomfortable; I can accept her growing fondness and platonic love for him, but romantic love…? I can’t quite make that leap imaginatively. However…this retelling is faithful to the traditional fairy tale in having the Beast turn into a handsome prince at the end - phew! Now I’m happy.
I love Mckinley’s immersive style of writing; she creates settings full of sensory details, so that as a reader I quickly ‘see’ the story vividly. The secondary characters of Beauty’s family are not so developed in Beauty as they are in Rose Daughter, but we are drawn very closely into the character of the eponymous heroine by her first person narrative – and a very enjoyable character she is too – kind, clever, brave.
So nearly twenty years later Robin Mckinley writes Rose Daughter, which tells again the tale of three sisters who pass from riches to rags. In this version a mysterious inheritance of a small cottage saves them from homelessness, and so they travel into the country to take possession of it.
Strange stories surround the cottage, and strange things happen within it, notably that it has a magical rose garden that the youngest sister, Beauty, is able to revive. Roses, and Beauty’s gift for growing roses is a theme of the story. There is the familiar retelling of how the father, lost in a storm, is given shelter in a mysterious palace where he takes a single rose for his youngest daughter. This theft of a rose causes a fearsome beast to appear, demanding that he give him his youngest daughter to make amends. When Beauty does arrive at the palace, she spends most of her time in a cathedral-like greenhouse, saving the roses that are dying there, and being assisted by magical means.
The story preserves all of the familiar details of the most well known versions of Beauty and the Beast – except for the ending – more on that to come...
I loved the writing style of Rose Daughter, it is more complex than Beauty, it is denser, more mature, and rich with evocative detail. I loved the characters (and names) of the elder sisters. Every part of the story is infused with magic, and yet the characters remain very practical and down to earth. There are so many layers of imagery and themes - roses, nature, family, home. Overall it is darker and deeper than Beauty, the palace is not as friendly a place as the castle in Beauty, it’s more mysterious and eerie.
I did find the backstory of how the beast came to be the beast a little convoluted and hard to follow, and more importantly – I did not like the ending. Why? – because the beast remained a beast. I could believe in the friendship between Beauty and the Beast, I could believe in Beauty’s growing fondness and appreciation of his company, and her sympathy for him – but romantic love and marriage between a human girl and a big, hairy animal with canines? It didn’t feel right. It was fine when Shrek didn’t turn into a handsome prince, because Princess Fiona stayed an ogre too!
But this is my subjective opinion – other readers may enjoy the subversive ending, but I felt a little robbed of what Tolkien called, ‘the Consolation of the Happy Ending’. The beast remaining in the condition that he himself was miserable in ruined the happy ending for me. I would see the full recovery of the beast’s humanity to be an essential result of the breaking of the curse. Despite this disappointment, I still consider Mckinley to be one of the finest fantasy writers of our time, and perhaps it’s no bad thing to have an ending that challenges expectations, and raises questions in the reader’s mind.
And which version did I like most?
I loved them both. I prefer Rose Daughter for its greater depth of story and character and the more lyrical language, but I much preferred the ending of Beauty, as the more traditional retelling of the two.
Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy (2014) by Karen Foxlee
This is a fantasy novel for younger readers, age 9-12, but it's so beautifully written that it makes for a satisfying read for a YA audience also.
I don’t generally like fantasy stories set in the present day, but this one does a great job of weaving an old fairytale setting through the backstory of centuries past, while making the contemporary setting seem fairytale-like as well.
It’s not a full retelling, but is a story centred on a familiar fairy tale character – that of the Snow Queen. In Karen Foxlee’s story the Snow Queen has lived through many incarnations to make it to the modern-day, where her plans are still in motion to take over the world and bring it under her cruel and icy rule.
The task of saving the world from such a fate falls to an unlikely prophesied heroine – eleven year old Ophelia-Jane – a geeky, scientific-minded girl who is swept up into a dangerous quest involving talking ghosts, ferocious wolves, human-eating birds, and worse!
There are emotive subtexts to the story that give it rich depth – themes of grief and suffering, of courage and love – these themes are woven effortlessly throughout the fast-paced adventure. The setting of a mysterious old museum in a snowy city, and the charming character of Ophelia are just wonderful. I really enjoyed this story.
North Child (2003) by Edith Pattou
I read this many years ago when it was first published, long ago enough to have forgotten the details, so it was like reading it anew, and it's every bit as good as I remember, having the feel of an undated classic. I understand this goes by the title of East in the US version, and North Child in the UK, but they are one and the same story.
North Child is a retelling of the Norwegian folktale East Of the Sun, West Of the Moon. In the traditional version (there are variations) a poor cottager with a large family is visited by a great, white bear who promises to make him rich if he will give him his youngest daughter. The cottager refuses, and the bear leaves, saying he will come back in a week’s time. Meanwhile, the youngest daughter has determined that she will go when the bear returns, and so she does.
The white bear carries her away to a magical castle where she has every luxury by day, but is troubled by night to find that a mysterious person lays down beside her, only to be gone again in the morning. Time passes, and her desire to see who her mystery bedfellow is overwhelms her, so one night she lights a candle and discovers it is a handsome young prince. He awakes when she drips candle wax on him, and cries out that she has failed him, for if she had lived with him one full year without looking on him he would have been released from the curse he was under - to be a bear by day and man by night. Now he will be taken to a witch’s castle 'east ‘o the sun and west ‘o the moon', and so he and the castle disappears.
The heroine sets off to find him, and with the help of the north, south and west winds, and the people she meets on the way, she finds the castle, where she breaks the curse and rescues her prince.
As mentioned in my first post, the myth of Cupid and Psyche is the oldest recorded story that this folktale originates from, as does Beauty and the Beast. Edith Pattou adds her own twists and new motifs to the story, including mapmaking and weaving, Inuit shamanism and Northern mythology. It’s a wonderful retelling, full of vivid description, memorable characters, and told in an interesting way by alternating the first-person viewpoint of five characters.
This was perfect wintertime reading with its settings of Norway and Northern lands of ice and snow. I have read that there may be a film version being made, and also a sequel written - here’s hoping for both!
The Golden Princess and the Moon (2016) by Anna Maria Mendell
I really enjoyed this retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Anna Maria Mendell creates a real old-fashioned fairy tale - and when I say ‘old-fashioned’, I mean it in a good way. I mean that there’s a quality of Faery-ness that hearkens back to the fairy tales of old. The author acknowledges her indebtedness to George Macdonald in her work, and this novel did remind me of George Macdonald’s Victorian fantasy writings. Macdonald’s fairy tales were an influence on C.S Lewis, who in turn was an encourager of Tolkien in his writing. All three authors strove to capture in their own fantasy writings that essence of Faery romance - that glimpse and sense of another world - a longing to ‘hear the horns of Efland’, to quote Lewis (quoting Tennyson).
The story is told in the form of a story within a story weaving the tales of the two main characters: Rosa, the sleeping beauty, and Erik, the prince who will awaken her. Through the intertwining narratives we ‘watch’ both characters grow up from childhood to adulthood, though their lives are hundreds of years apart.
The princess’s story is recounted as a legend of old to the young prince Erik. But Erik not only hears of the legendary sleeping princess, he is also haunted by dreams and visions of her throughout his childhood and youth. Both characters interact with the fairy world, and are helped by fairy folk; both characters have difficult childhoods; there are curses to break, trials to endure, vital lessons of character to be learned - and even when they finally find one another it seems the problems have just begun! But all ends just as it should - with a happy ever after. Phew!
A great retelling - full of mysterious settings and magical beings - I could definitely hear 'the horns of Efland faintly blowing' in the distance...'
Heartless (Tales of Goldstone Wood #1) (2010) by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
Heartless has fairy-tale characters and motifs galore - strange otherworld beings, a princess waiting for her true love, a helpful, shape-shifting cat - and lots of dragons.
It begins in light-hearted, comedic fashion, though with a delicious hint of eeriness from the presence of the mysterious and forbidding Goldstone Wood that lies beyond the palace grounds.
Princess Una is the leading lady of the story who is the object of matrimonial desire to a series of princes. But she is strong-willed and independent minded enough to give her heart to the one prince who is perhaps the most unsuitable.
The story begins to darken as it becomes apparent that Una is also the object of desire to an evil being who appears in the form of a black dragon; a dragon that would destroy everything and everyone she holds dear, and will be satisfied with nothing less than corrupting and consuming her own heart and soul. And it seems no one has the power to withstand such an evil force and save her.
There are hints of the George and the Dragon legend, echoes of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and a thoughtful exploration of the nature of evil, and of the power of sacrificial redemption to overcome it.
This is the first standalone novel in a series revolving round the mysterious Goldstone Wood, and I look forward to exploring Stengl’s fairy-tale world further in her other stories.
My Unfair Godmother by Janette Rallinson (2016)
A fashion-conscious fairy-godmother in training, a poker-playing leprechaun, Robin Hood and his merry men and Rumpelstiltskin – and if that doesn’t sound like a mad mash-up of characters, how about throwing in a 21st-century teen couple with their 21st-century family problems, add a bit of time-travelling, teenage angst, and some romance - and you can’t possibly make all of that work in a novel - can you? Well you can if your name is Janette Rallison.
Seventeen year old Tansy is a modern day girl struggling to adjust to a family divided by divorce. Having a reprobate boyfriend doesn’t help, and when she finds herself landed in the local jail and grounded for life, her fairy godmother decides it’s time to show up.
Thus begins a time-travelling romp into 12th-century England, where Tansy finds herself in the middle of her own fairy tale retelling – that of Rumpelstilskin. Her only way home is to learn the moral of her own story, but she cannot know the answer to that until her story is complete, and with a murderous mad king and an evil Rumpelstiltskin to contend with, getting to the end of her own story in one piece is no easy matter.
This was a fast-paced enjoyable read. Tansy is a likeable character who discovers the truth of her own heart as she learns the moral of her own life story. The romance is sweet, the dialogue is witty, the dippy fairy godmother is funny, and I enjoyed the mad-mash up of legend and fairy tale characters.
I’m also pleased to see there are two other novels in the same series to enjoy!
The Book of a Thousand Days (2007) by Shannon Hale
I thought from the title that this might be a retelling of 1001 Arabian Nights, but it’s actually a retelling of a lesser known Grimm’s fairy tale: Maid Maleen.
In the Grimm’s recorded tale, Maid Maleen is a princess. She is in love with a prince, but is forbidden to marry him, and declares to her father she will marry no one else. Her father punishes her by locking her and her servants in a tower for seven years. Eventually they escape, but only to find their kingdom has been utterly destroyed.
They travel to the kingdom of Maleen’s prince - who is now about to be married to another princess - and there they find work in the palace kitchens.
I won’t give any more plot spoilers, but the fairy tale has some recurring fairy tale motifs - the girl locked in a tower (Rapunzel), the princess/noblewoman forced to work in the kitchens (King Thrushbeard, Catskin).
Shannon Hale tells her version from the point of view of the princess’s maid, Dashti. In Shannon’s novel, Dashti is the real heroine who enjoys her own rags-to-riches story.
I enjoyed the exotic setting of this book; it has a flavour of medieval Mongolia. It’s told in the form of a diary written by Dashti - first-person narration is a compelling way to draw a reader into a character, and Dashti is a particularly wonderful character - how can the handsome prince not fall in love with her? She is both humble underdog and brave heroine. She is earthy and very funny; her diary entries had me laughing out loud at times.
A thoroughly enjoyable story, and as much as I can never get enough of the best loved fairy tales, it is really nice to come across a retelling of a lesser-known one.
Till We Have Faces (1956) by C.S. Lewis
This is one of my vintage-all-time-favourites. I read it every couple of years, and always see some new facet in the story that I didn’t see before.
It's a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, retold from the point of view of Psyche’s sister, Orual. It’s not a fairy-tale, but it does have gods, unseen monsters, an invisible palace and other fantasy tropes; and Cupid and Psyche prefigures many later fairy tales, including East Of the Sun and West Of the Moon, and Beauty and the Beast.
It's a tale of the lives and loves of three princesses, living in the ancient kingdom of Glome.
Redival, the eldest sister, is pretty, but selfish. Her only desire is to find a man and escape from their tyrannical father, the king. The middle sister, Orual, is uncannily ugly, and has no romantic expectations; she adores her youngest half-sister Psyche, and grows to be a wise and brave, though unhappy, queen.
The youngest princess, Psyche, is so beautiful that the people of the kingdom worship her; but this arouses the jealousy of the goddess Ungit. The wrath of Ungit can only be satiated by the sacrifice of Psyche, and so Psyche is bound and abandoned on a sacred mountain – left to be consumed by a hideous beast.
Orual is devastated by the loss of Psyche, and she sets out for the mountain that she might bury her sister’s body. But she does not find a body. Instead she finds Psyche, who claims to be living in a beautiful, but invisible, palace, blissfully married to a husband who comes to her at night, but forbids her to ever see his face...
It is through Orual’s life-story that the mystery of Psyche is unravelled. But it is also Orual who unwittingly casts her beloved sister, and herself, into tragedy. The story does not end with tragedy however – I mention that in case, like me, you can’t bear an unhappy ending!
In Lewis’s genius fashion, he has written what seems on the surface to be a simple tale, but which explores deep and profound themes: faith, reason, love, jealousy, beauty. It is also a skilful psychological exploration of Orual, showing how love can be twisted into a destructive force if it is not selfless.