Into the Woods: Four Fairytale Retellings Off the Beaten Path

Fairytale retellings are a framework I never tire of; I grew up on Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale series and Robin McKinley’s timeless retellings of “Beauty and the Beast” and other classic stories, and have been unable to resist a good Grimm’s makeover ever since. Here are four of my (by no means exclusive) favorites, both old and new.

 

Kissing the Witch Emma Donoghue

Kissing the Witch, by Emma Donoghue

I was lucky enough to come across Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary early book Kissing the Witch when it first came out in 1997, and it had a profound effect on me as a writer (by which I mean “I spent the next several years writing really terrible versions of Emma Donoghue short stories”). Gorgeous, surreal, and haunting, her reworked fairytales feature princesses falling in love with witches, sisters on perilous journeys to save errant brothers, fairies who are wiser than girls; they’re stories you know, but retold so subtly that by the book’s end you’ll find yourself in a world wholly unlike the one you expected to find.

 

Boy Snow Bird Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

Not so much a fairytale retelling as a telling steeped in fairytales, the preternaturally gifted Helen Oyeyemi’s inversion of “Snow White” creates a singular world that both reflects and turns inside out our own. “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,” begins Boy, the novel’s eponymous narrator, and the story that follows is a dizzying exploration of race, gender, ethnicity, identity, and culture; like Oyeyemi’s previous work, it’s infused with both glorious fabulism and brutal truth. Boy is a self-made orphan, fleeing her evil rat-catcher father in search of a better life, but it’s when she transforms herself into her own kind of wicked stepmother that the novel reveals its magnificent complexity, asking questions that are as old—and as ageless—as the stories in which it’s rooted.

 

Ash Malinda Lo

Ash, by Malinda Lo

Though Ash only came out in 2009, it has the feel of the classic young adult fantasy novels I read as a kid: there are echoes of writers like Robin McKinley, Peter Dickinson, and Jane Yolen, but Ash takes that timeless quality and makes it into something original and beautiful. Orphaned Ash, spurned and abused by her stepmother and materialistic stepsisters, seeks solace in a fairy prince, but when she meets the huntress Kaisa, she must choose between fantasy and the wants of her human heart. Lo’s prose is stunning, and her fresh vision of “Cinderella,” paired with the classic beauty of her writing, makes for an outstanding read. (The novel was a finalist for the William C. Morris Award, the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and the Lambda Literary Award, and deservedly so.)

 

The Dogs Rebecca Brown

The Dogs, by Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown is one of the most relentlessly brilliant writers out there, and The Dogs is a straight-up masterpiece. A little bit “Little Red Riding Hood,” a little bit just lost, its nameless narrator lives alone in a tiny apartment with a pack of Doberman pinschers. Led by the vicious but charismatic Miss Dog, the dogs are alternately brutal foes and loving companions. The Dogs spins through familiar fairytales, the lives of Christian mystics, and ordinary real-world settings, combining disparate elements into a world that is vivid, terrifying, and piercingly real. You won’t think about storytelling in the same way once you finish it.


Sarah McCarry (www.therejectionist.com / @therejectionist) is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings (July 2014) and the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a chapbook series dedicated to revolutionary nonfiction.

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