Fairy Tales, Part 2
We’ve covered some of my favorite children’s fairy tales, now let’s talk about those meant for older folks. This is where things really get good; retellings, modern fairy tales, urban fantasy – it’s all up for grabs.
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Beauty is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that came out originally in 1978. I read this edition, which was published in 1985. Newer editions are geared more toward the YA market, with Beauty looking about 14, which I find mildly disturbing since she gets married in the end.
Robin McKinley has a lyrical writing style and an exceptional grasp of description. Reading this book always felt to me like looking into Aladdin’s cave. Everywhere I turned there was some new amazing thing to catch my attention. I also liked that this Beauty wasn’t beautiful. She was too thin, too awkward. She grows into her name by force of character rather than by gift of genetics. I was an awkward looking dumpling of a child, so I appreciated that.
As an interesting aside, McKinley didn’t feel like she was finished with the Beauty and the Beast story so in 1997 she wrote another version called Rose Daughter. This version is set in a world much more steeped in magic. Beauty and her sisters take magic lessons and so the notion of an enchanted castle is not, perhaps so startling. I like both books, but my loyalty lies with the one I read first, Beauty.
Another author who is well-known for her fairy tale retellings is Mercedes Lackey. I’ve discussed her Elemental Masters series before. All of the stories are re-told fairy tales. I’ve got a list at the link above, so I won’t reiterate it here. My two favorites are actually the first two in the series – The Fire Rose, which is another Beauty and the Beast tale set in turn of the 20th century San Francisco, and The Serpent’s Tale, which is a Snow White retelling set in Victorian London. I especially like this book because the protagonist is a half-English, half-Indian female doctor and the dwarves are replaced by her animal companions who also reflect certain Indian gods. This story just works for me, maybe because Lackey is thinking outside the box. Sadly, most of the others in the series are a little more prosaic, but still, on the whole, well written.
Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess
I’m going to insist on the illustrated version of this one. I know, it comes in a non-illustrated paperback that is less expensive, but… it’s not right. The book was originally designed as a novel with full illustrations and that’s the only way I can really stand it. Because it was illustrated originally Gaiman doesn’t bother to describe most of the visuals. Some people prefer it that way, so they can use their imaginations, but I like to see the pretty pictures.
Tristan is a little bit hopeless. In an effort to impress his lady-love he makes a rash promise to bring her a shooting star that has fallen on the far side of the Wall. The Wall has always surrounded the village of Wall, which is, itself, a normal, English, Victorian village. But, on the other side of the Wall is the realms of Faerie. When he tracks down the star he finds that instead of being a lump of celestial rock it is actually a woman named Yvaine. Tristan captures her and the two start a trek across the kingdom back to the Wall, but there are huge dangers along the way, including a witch named Lamia who wants Yvaine for her own dark reasons.
Indexing by Seanan McGuire is another amazing new fairy tale. The elevator pitch for it is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D meets the Brothers Grimm. The ATI Managemnt Bureau works very hard to keep the story from intruding into the real world. Its agents are those who have survived brushes with the story. Agent Marchen is a Snow White in abeyance. Sloane is a Wicked Stepsister who has kept her story from going active somehow, but she has a disturbing appreciation for goth clothing and poisons, which aren’t good signs. Each story is registered on the Aarne-Thompson Index, which is a real thing. Each story has variations and consequences. A rogue Cinderella could snap and kill her step-sisters over, and over, and over again. An uncontained Goldilocks will call bears to her if she doesn’t go to them. A Pied Piper would be lucky if all she calls with her music is rats. And a Peter Pan is going to try to fly even though the story doesn’t actually give him the power. It’s up to Agent Marchen and her team to find, identify, and stop the incursions before too many people get hurt.
The last book I want to talk about is Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman. This book has several classic elements of urban fantasy – the unknown magical world that exists alongside our own, the danger hidden in the fairy tale tropes. But there’s also something very special. I think that something probably comes from Newman’s own voice, which is fresh and wonderful, while still being a little bit dark and creepy.
The story is split between Cathy, the rebellious daughter of the Fae-touched aristocracy, and Max, an Arbiter from Aquae Sulis (the magical realm) who has stumbled on an unthinkable level of corruption within his own organization. Cathy and Max may hold the keys to each others’ problem, but in a world where nothing is as it seems and your own family will betray you without a thought can they afford to trust each other?
There are tons of other amazing fairy tale-style books out there. Which ones have I missed?