There’s comfort in immersing yourself in a story you know—but there’s a certain thrill in seeing that story come to life in a new way.
Perhaps this is why I’ve gravitated toward books inspired by fairytales and the books that feel like fairytales as a reader, and an author. Every single one of my young-adult fantasy books published so far has been an ode to my favorite stories. First, The Little Mermaid (The Hans Christian Andersen original!) with Sea Witch, and most recently, The Kingdoms of Sand and Sky trilogy—inspired by the modern fairytale of The Princess Bride—which just wrapped up with the August 2nd publication of The King Will Kill You.
The King Will Kill You, along with the first two books in the series—The Princess Will Save You and The Queen Will Betray You—are at their heart a gender-bent version of the damsel in distress trope so common in the history of story. I might be biased, but I find modern takes on retellings that manipulate the gender spectrum to be a refreshing way to set up a story and spotlight the issues in our own, real-life, hyper-patriarchal society. So, I wanted to highlight a handful of gender-bent young-adult retellings of stories (or characters) we know, just in case you need a breath of fresh air as summer comes to a close.
King Arthur: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
This contemporary twist on Arthurian legend rebuilds Camelot using the secret society framework of modern American universities while dissecting race and expectation in the reveal of its modern-day king. At the center of the story is Bree Matthews, a 16-year-old, who is attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as part of the early college high school program. Bree’s mother has recently died and ever since that shock to her system, Bree has been noticing some, shall we say, strangeness about herself. An inner Bree feels as if she’s about to claw her way out, and when she arrives on campus it seems her senses can detect something that shouldn’t exist: magic. She finds answers by chance through Nick, a student assigned to help her through her campus transition who also happens to be a legacy member of a very secret society where the magic Bree is seeing isn’t just accepted, it’s traced to King Arthur and his roundtable. The fact that King Arthur was real and has actual descendants is stunning in its own right for Bree, but as she digs deeper into both her powers and her mother’s past, the surprises keep coming at a furious pace for both her and Nick. Sidenote: Nick is exceptional book boyfriend material.
The Three Musketeers: One for All by Lillie Lainoff
This gender-bent retelling of The Three Musketeers doesn’t just flip the main character, but ALL of the musketeers in this swashbuckling tale of sisterhood and swordfights with the fate of France on the line. The story revolves around Tania, whose father is both her hero and a former musketeer. When he is brutally murdered, Tania seeks to abide by his final wish—for her to attend a very specific “finishing school.” But the school isn’t as advertised. Instead, it’s secret training for female musketeers aka the type of women with knives strapped beneath their skirts and who are educated in ways to seduce secrets out of unsuspecting men. Tania immediately takes to the school and her new musketeer sisters, but when she meets a target named Etienne, duty and emotion become quite a bit muddled, to say the least. Not only is Etienne more dreamy than is convenient, he may be harboring vital information on the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Come for the gender-bent swashbuckling, stay for the extreme intrigue.
The Little Mermaid: Out of the Blue by Jason June
This is just the most delightful queer rom-com take on The Little Mermaid tale (tail?), told from the dual POV of Sean, a lifeguard whose boyfriend just dumped him, and Crest, a non-binary merperson who must make the “Journey” to land. This one has fake-dating and literal fish-out-of-water vibes and is just adorable. Out of the Blue feels fresh and modern and maybe slightly throw-back to a John Hughes-type energy, but the way the whimsical nature of the Hans Christian Andersen original is still somehow crystalized and perfectly distilled before being plopped into a Southern California setting that seems both perfectly appropriate and only adds to the whimsy of big, quick love. Honestly, there’s no way you can read this one and not be smiling from ear to ear from cover to cover.
The Count of Monte Cristo: Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim
Like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo is a beloved and exciting tale from Alexandre Dumas. Scavenge the Stars captures the adventure, opulence, and thirst for revenge of the original tale while centering the story around Amaya, who, after falling into a fortune, sets out to ruin those who stole her life and tore apart her family. A tale of vengeance is almost always a fun one and The Count of Monte Cristo is often blueprint material for everything that came after—whether overtly stated or not—but seeing the original tale with such fresh and female eyes just adds another layer to the injustice that Amaya struggles with as she sets those who wronged her on fire. This take on revenge is incredibly satisfying.
Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
Okay, this isn’t totally gender-bent as it is like Legendborn, a legacy situation. Our Sherlock here is Charlotte, a descendent of the world-famous Holmes. Charlotte has been raised in a tradition that is as intense as it is intensive. The Holmes family does not skimp on Charlotte’s education in unusual skills, and because of this, by the time we meet her, she’s as acerbic as she is deductive, and has a whole host of vices that haven’t given her the best reputation. When her era’s Watson, our narrator Jamie, arrives at the same Connecticut boarding school that she’d been attending, they inevitably meet and inevitably become friends, and then inevitably, there’s a dead body—someone they both have reason to want dead. Worse, the body is staged in such a way to recreate one of Sherlock and Watson’s most famous cases. Knowing they’re being framed, Holmes and Watson team up and the best sort of investigative hijinks ensue, all written in Watson’s funny, self-deprecating voice. Oh, and he also just might be in love with her.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand by C.V. Wyk
Okay, so Thracian gladiator Spartacus was an actual person, but he’s definitely become a character with his own legend since he first led a slave rebellion against the Roman Republic. Spartacus gets an update in this tale of a Thracian warrior girl, Attia, who is captured by the Romans and given (ugh) as a sign of favor to one of their most popular gladiators, Xanthus, himself a slave to the arena since childhood. After a very rough introduction (Attia is rightfully pissed), they settle into what is first an alliance and later a knee-weakening romance. Together, the pair spark the legend and rebellion of Spartacus. Full of suspense, excellent fighting scenes, and all the feels of the little guy banding together against the “big bad” (and, let’s face it, the Romans make an excellent big bad), this under-the-radar gem will have you cheering as you fly through the pages.
Sarah Henning is the author of the gender-bent The Princess Bride inspired-series, The Kingdoms of Sand and Sky: The Princess Will Save You, The Queen Will Betray You and The King Will Kill You, out now from Tor Teen.