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Monday, April 1, 2013

Nadine Recommends... a "Best Retellings" list from Nadine

Earlier in FTF, Nadine from SFF Book Reviews gave us her take on Daughter of the Forest. Today she's taking a break from me trying to convince her she loves it just as much as I do, and stopping by to give us her list of fairy tale-ish recommendations.

I have to say, I agree with her on a number of these (I'm not the only one who knows and loved Everworld!), and a few are on my to-read list. Check 'em out, let us know what you think, and tell us YOUR recommendations in the comments!

Misty the Book Rat did a Book Chat video where she recommends her favorite fairy tales, retellings, fairy tale-esque, or just fantasy books. She always has great recommendations and splits them nicely into groups so that you can find what suits you best.

I’ll group my recommendations a bit differently because, recently, I have discovered new things that interest me and that I want to share with you people.

Non-European Fairy Tale Retellings

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Grimms’ tales. They were my first contact with stories and I knew most of them by heart by the age of four. However, living in Europe, it took me a long while to figure out that other places have other mytholgies and, thus, other fairy tales. It’s not all fairy godmothers and girls who go from rags to riches. It’s not only princes saving damsels in distress or little men who spin straw into gold. So here is my recommendation list for fairy tale retellings based on something other than Grimm or Andersen:

Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless

This retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathleass was not my first contatct with Russian folklore (the rusalki in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana was). I had never heard of Koschei the deathless but he is a truly intriguing character. The Tsar who hides his death inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in a chest, which is hidden. There are variations of this, of course, but whether it’s a duck or a goose, isn’t that a brilliant and dark idea? Valente’s take on Koschei and Marya Morevna, his bride, is dark and beautiful and full of magic. The only character who would pass for a fairy godmother – Baba Yaga – is actually the opposite of someone helping the heroine. I could talk about this book forever, about all the nuances of its characters and the vibrance of its settings. But if you like your tales dark and set in Russia, pick this one up.

Tad Williams – Otherland

Surprised to find a science fiction saga in this list? So was I. While this huge story, told over four 1000-page volumes, revolves mostly around a virtual world rich people have created, a character named !Xabbu brings a lot of mythology to the table. His narrative intersplices the story with African fairy tales. If you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Anansi Boys, you’ll meet some old friends in here. Grandfather Mantis, Anansi, the trickster god, and so many others make appearences. While these stories may not be the heart of the books, they gave them an added layer of awesome and introduced me to a whole new world of folklore and fairy tales. Plus, the rest of the story is great too.

Christopher Moore – Coyote Blue

Chris Moore writes funny stories. They usually feature monsters and make you laugh on every page, while still carrying a serious undertone. This one is a particular favorite of mine because its protagonist deals with Coyote, the Native American trickster god. And boy, does that guy make life hard for humans. To say hilarity ensues is an understatement but I loved how Moore weaves a crazy and hilarious tale into Native American mythology. You don’t see much of that and I think it was wonderfully done. You can start reading Christopher Moore with any book you like but if you have already read Lamb – The Gospel According to Biff, this is a good novel to pick up next.

Katherine A. Applegate – Everworld

I ate these books when I was a teenager. I would eagerly await the translation of the newest book and when it wouldn’t come, I contacted the translator only to find out that the last two books would never be translated into German. So I went and bought the whole set – 12 books – in English. This is a YA story about four teenagers who accidentally get sucked into Everworld, a crazy place where all the gods and mythical creatures went when Earth people stopped worshipping them properly. You will find the god Loki not too far away from Aztec god Huitzilopoctli, who, in turn, lives quite close to Neptune, whose underwater home is surprisingly close to African and Egyptian gods. It is more mythology-based than retelling fairy tales but I usually find that people who like the one thing are quite partial to the other as well. Each book is only about 150 pages long, you can read them in an hour or two, and I think it’s one of the most underrated YA series out there. Especially because the author’s other series, Animorphs, seems to get so much love.

Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Drowning Girl

You can tell a book had an impact on me when I manage to cram it into every blog post I write. While this is not a retelling, nor a fairy tale-esque book, it has elements that appealed to me because they were specifically about fairy tales. Imp, the protagonist, is schizophrenic and tries to figure out which of her own memories are to be trusted and which aren’t. In that process, she becomes somewhat obsessed with The Little Mermaid in all its shapes and forms. Rusalki or Andersen’s mermaid, she collects information on them all. In the second half, she focuses more on Little Red Riding Hood and its origins. If you like fairy tales, this is just an added bonus to what is a brilliant book (and will probably end up on my best of the year list, along with the Valente).

Retellings of classics

Peter Pan

I am a Peter Pan nut. For some reason, it is my favorite children’s classic and it has only grown better the more often I read it. If you haven’t read the original (the Disney movie doesn’t exist in my universe, so you may not count that!) then go and buy that one first. If you have an e-reader you can get it for free in most online bookstores. Because it is my favorite tale and has lots of fairy tale elements, I have read a number of retellings, spins, and alternate version of it. Not all are great but the ones that I liked were so good I can’t shut up about them.

Régis Loisel – Peter Pan

A 6-volume, full color comic book series by the fantastic French writer and artist Régis Loisel. I found these books in the library in France and read them within a few days. I didn’t even bother to check them out, just sat there and read one after the other. They are definitely not written for children. There are copious amounts of violence and some bare-breasted ladies to be found here – mermaids don’t really wear seashells as bras, it seems. It starts in London, where Peter is just trying to survive his drunk mother’s wrath and basically lives on the streets. When he discovers the Neverland, he is not immediately the hero of this story. Loisel has taken all the well-known elements of the original – Tinker Bell, Hook, Smee, the mermaids, and the Indians – but put a dark spin on the tale. He has woven his own mythology around it and, in my opinion, created something that is at least as good as the original. Just… you know, don’t give it to your five-year-old.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I’m not much of an Oz fan. Or at least, I’m not a fan of Baum’s writing. My first contact with Oz was not through the Judy Garland movie but through it’s sequel Back to Oz. I found the idea of a whole world, that I somehow was already supposed to know, destroyed and desolate so intriguing that I immediately fell in love with it. It had everything I wanted as a child. A talking chicken, creepy guys on rollerblades, the scariest witch I had ever seen (until then at least) and the reverberations of its own original mythology.

Gregory Maguire – Wicked

I don’t think this book needs much publicity anymore. But the one reason you may not like it is expectations. Do NOT go into this thinking it is a cute retelling of The Wizard of Oz. It’s not. Not even from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view. We do follow Elphaba, green girl that she is, through her life until she becomes the Wicked Witch, but other than being set in Oz, the book has very little in common with the original tale. Which made it all the better for me. Instead of fluffy adventures, there are gritty politics, instead of cute talking animals, there is a racial war brewing under the surface. This book asks questions of morality, of good and evil, and it also deals with a girl who happens to be green. It is wonderfully written but it is not a children’s book. Not so much because of sexual content or violence but because I doubt a child will plough through hundreds of pages without any of the cute, fluffy elements.

Lesser known fairy tales

The first classic that I read, knowing I was reading A Classic, was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. After that, the Penguin classics (those beige paperbacks with a painting on the cover) were all mine. Ever since, I have been a huge Oscar Wilde fan and he never fails to amuse me. What many people don’t know is that, in addition to Dorian Gray and his famous – and hilarious – plays, Wilde also wrote fairy tales. And they are heartbreaking!

  • The Happy Prince
  • The Nightingale and the Rose

Two of these tales remain in my memory as ones that made me cry. The Happy Prince is about a statue, covered in gold and jewels, but stuck to its platform, unable to interact with the people it sees every day. In order to help their suffering and poverty, the happy prince gives a piece of his gold or jewels to the families he watches, without them ever knowing what brought them such fortune.

The Nightingale and the Rose is a very short tale but, oh God, did it make me cry. Like a baby! It is about a nightingale who sacrifices everything to make someone else happy, that’s all I’m telling you. You can see where it’s going very quickly but Oscar Wilde manages to throw another moment of heartbreak in, right at the end. I’m not sure I’ll ever read this tale again just because it had such an effect on me. In tone, it is more like Andersen’s melancholy tales than the Grimms’ moral stories.

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  1. Everworld! Now that's a blast from the past.

  2. Ooh, I have Kiernan's The Drowning Girl reserved from the library, and I didn't even known it had some fairy tale themes tied in. I can't wait to get my copy!

    I also loved the Return to Oz movie as a kid, it was so wonderfully creepy! We used to play Deadly Desert and Lunch Pail Tree with my sisters. :D

  3. Only came across FTF now, and I'm so glad to see The Happy Prince here. Indeed, it's a little-known work yet one of my favourites. Wish more people knew the story!


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