When I say fairy tale fantasies, I mean fantasies with a fairy tale atmosphere or novels that are rooted in fairy tales. (I thought ‘retellings’ might be too specific…perhaps for another post.) I think these are often difficult to pull off (but so are a lot of other genres); the plot trajectory, if taken from an existing fairy tale, is often predetermined, and so the onus is on the author to make it worth it, through plot innovations, character depth, language, and so on. These are some (probably not so obscure) fairy tale fantasy novels/collections that I think are definitely worth a read.
1. The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (Angela Carter)
This is a short story collection that was published back in 1979. Carter died in ’72, and this might not seem a particularly shocking book now, but for its time, it did prove to be something of a shock, for its depiction of sexuality and even, violence. Carter remarked that she was working with the “latent content” from existing fairy tales, and I don’t know how original they would seem to a 21st century reader (particularly in the era of dystopias and grit-lit). But Carter’s lush, nearly decadent prose is really the most engaging thing for me. It’s a collection of 10 stories, all (I’m sure) studied under microscope in universities by now, but it makes for interesting reading and I think in a time when we’re still seeing ‘classic’ remakes of films like Cinderella and The Beauty and the Beast (although I haven’t seen the latter) Carter’s ’79 collection is actually not totally un-original. At times horrifying, macabre and grim (the shortest story, ‘The Snow Child’, is certainly all three) but narrated in rich-toned prose, the stories are based on a variety of fairy tales (and other things besides) like the Bluebeard tale, Red Riding Hood, Sleepy Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and so on. My personal favourites now are ‘The Erl King’ (I wasn’t aware of the Danish origin, so this was a totally fresh story for me at first) and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ (a kind of twisted up take on Sleeping Beauty which is, for me, entirely carried by the prose alone). The language might be a little difficult if you’re more used to casual prose but it’s well worth it for me.
His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat. – ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Angela Carter.
2. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente)
A much more child-friendly book, this is about a 12 year old girl September’s adventures in Fairyland, as she leaves behind her dull home in Omaha, Nebraska. I was initially reluctant to read it – I felt it would either be absolutely for children (which there’s nothing wrong with, but it’s not really something I would read eagerly) or it wouldn’t be interesting enough to hold my attention for very long. I was wrong on both counts; this is a beautiful, fantastical, and extremely original novel that everyone can read. It is not specifically a fairy tale (too long, for one) but it does have fairy tale-like qualities. But really, it’s a book that creates a brand new world, populated by interesting and colourful characters, sometimes comical, casually mysterious, and bursting with a whimsical and powerful freshness even in its plot. I was so pleasantly surprised by this in so many ways, and I’m looking forward to reading the two sequels when I finally have the time.
3. Poison (Chris Wooding)
This is sadly the only book I’ve read by Wooding, and I read it a couple years back, but it managed to be quite memorable. Drawing upon the changeling myth, Poison, about a teenage girl who lends her name to the title, sets out to rescue her little sister Azalea who’s been replaced by a changeling. Girls going off on adventures is becoming a bit of a theme here but this (somewhat) YA (slightly) horror fantasy is strange, morbid, and would probably make an interesting film with its visual descriptions of characters like The Bone Witch and the spidery Lady Asinastra. It might be a bit deus ex machina-ish at times, but it’s still very engaging, sometimes a little Coraline-esque in its twistedness. I enjoyed it very much when I read it, and while I’m sure this kind of thing has been done since, I don’t really ever tire of dark fairy tales when they’re done well. The end kind of meandered into a bit of a metafictional theme and I remember thinking the book lost a little focus there, but who knows, maybe someone else would find it even more interesting.
It was dark in the Realm of Spiders. The sky was a mottled velvet colour, wisps of purple cloud drifting across the cold points of starlight, far away. No moon lit this realm, and yet it was as bright as the brightest night in the Realm of Man, for everything glistened here. – Poison, Chris Wooding.
4. White is for Witching (Helen Oyeyemi)
I struggled a bit to include this on the list, because I personally didn’t love it. It’s very unconventional in its gothic, meandering, supernatural tone, but it follows no sense of linearity or tradition in its plot. In fact, I’m not even sure it has one. Miranda Silver, having lost her mother, deals with her grief and her eating disorder (pica) at the same time, as her house begins to wake to the voices of generations of women within. It’s quite a dark, strange book, perhaps more psychological horror than fairy tale, and it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. I did remain interested till the end, but didn’t have much to say about it once I was done. I’ve read some of Oyeyemi and plan to read more, but I don’t get very invested in it (although I am interested). So I don’t think this book is for everyone, but if you like to read haunting, unstructured prose that kind of goes in all directions and nowhere at once, this may be for you. I felt it important to include something that I didn’t absolutely fall in love with but someone else would, and honestly, I think I could use a reread and come back to it afresh.
5. Thorn (Intisar Khanani)
If you’re a fan of traditional fairy tale fantasies (none of my recommendations have really been like that so far), then this is for you. It’s straight up a retelling of the goose girl story, where a princess is tricked by her servant and they change places. The maid becomes the princess of another kingdom, and the princess becomes a goose girl. Here the princess is Alyrra, and goes by Thorn after she is cursed and takes on the task of a goose girl. This isn’t by any means the best or most original retelling I’ve ever read, but it’s quite satisfying, and I think people who enjoy conventional fairy tales particularly might like it, but it’s interesting enough for anybody really. I think it’s got a lot more clout than many of the popular YA fantasies these days, it has a bit of everything and Khanani does make an effort to add her own little details and give her characters some depth. And if it’s slightly predictable, well, it’s not really too much of a hindrance. It’s a neat little novel, and, I think, better than Shannon Hale’s retelling (although, to be honest, I can’t remember much about that one at all).
PS. Marissa Meyer and Robin McKinley don’t feature on this list, because I just figured everyone knew about them already (probably). With the former, I’ve too many issues, with the latter, well, I like her, but…it’s a story for another day.
I know there should’ve been a review. I’m working on it. I’m always working on it. In fact, a book I wanted to add to this list is the one I’m rereading (to review) at the moment. So. I know I need to make these posts shorter. I’m working on it…
If you’ve any suggestions for fairy tale-esque fantasies, let me know!
All quotes attributed to the respective work.