As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Instagram may know, there’s nothing I love so much as fairytales. Folklore, legends, myths, fairy stories — all of these are my bread and butter. I did a special paper and a dissertation on them in my final year of University because I couldn’t get enough of them. I find them so magical and entrancing, and exploring storytelling is one of my favourite ways to learn about and engage with different cultures.
To that end, I love reading books whose inspiration are rooted in fairytales and myths. Bringing the atmosphere and aesthetic of fairytales to life with engaging stories and fleshed out characters are the recipe for books that intoxicate me from the start, and I’m completely enraptured by them. There are countless fairytale retellings out there, many of them wonderful and among my favourite books. But there are so many many of them out there that I could dedicate a hundred other posts to recommending those (and knowing me, I probably will). Also, I talk about retellings a lot, because like I said — I love them! But these recommendations are books that I adore which I don’t talk about as much. They’re gorgeously atmospheric and utterly spellbinding, and must-reads for any fellow fairy tale lovers out there.
1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
I picked up Helene Wecker’s 2013 debut novel this year and about a chapter in, I knew I had a new favourite on my hands. The novel follows the story of Chava, a Golem, and Ahmad, a Jinni as they both navigate the world of humans as outsiders in New York, 1899. The backbone of the novel is a combination of Yiddish and Middle Eastern folklore, but also an intimate and vivid exploration of the Jewish and Syrian communities in New York of the day. It’s hard to pick which aspect of the novel I loved the most — Wecker brought to life a period of history and a portrait of communities I had gone into this novel knowing nothing about, and did so with such care and tenderness I fell in love with the stories and cultures as they were here portrayed.
I also loved the characters, and, more specifically, the relationships between them. Chava and Ahmad each have close friendships and connections with various humans that feel so real and palpable it brings them breathtakingly to life, and the dynamic between Chava and Ahmad themselves is the absolute standout about the book. It’s developed quietly, subtly, a tentative bond that grows into something between a friendship and romance between two outsiders who are total opposites, and yet capable of understanding each other in a way that no one else can. Despite the fact that both of them are mythical creatures, their relationship feels so honest and real it’s impossible not to fall in love with them.
Whether you’re a fan of history, magic, memorable characters, or some combination of the three, I cannot recommend this stunning novel enough. And, in a happy coincidence, despite the fact that I only discovered this book eight years after its publication, I arrived only one year before Helene Wecker publishes its sequel!
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
There’s not a question that sends me into a nervous sweat quicker than “what’s your favourite book?” and it’s one I’m always loath to answer. When I’m pushed to give an answer, this one almost always comes up as an answer. Gaiman — one of the biggest authors of today, and one of my favourites of all time — describes this novel as “a fairy tale for adults” and it’s exactly that. The story follows a young man named Tristran Thorn who goes on a quest to retrieve a fallen star, only to discover that the star is a woman. It’s romantic and magical, funny and dark, and sprinkled with pirates, unicorns, witches and magical kingdoms. The best way I can describe this book is to say it feels comfortingly familiar, as though it’s one that’s been passed down to you from an old book of fairytales or from family stories. It feels like a story that’s grown from some magic all by itself, long before any of us were around and it’s enchanting to read.
The narrative isn’t for everybody — the blend of darkness and humour that Gaiman builds his storytelling voice on is distinctive, and whilst some will love it, some might find it alienating. It reads as something that would fit right in alongside old English folktales and if that folksy kind of narrative is one that appeals to you, then this will be right up your alley.
It would be remiss of me to talk about Stardust without mentioning the film adaptation — it’s not exactly 100% faithful to the book, but, with Neil Gaiman’s blessing, it’s a slightly more lighthearted, comedic, but still sweeping and epic take on the original, and it’s one of my favourite movies of all time!
- The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
This is the first book in The Winternight Trilogy, which is — and excuse me for sounding like a broken record here — one of my favourite series of all time. The series is rooted in Russian history and folklore, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The Bear and the Nightingale follows Vasilisa, better known as Vasya, a young girl from the Russian wilderness who grows up always communicating with the nearby spirits and magical creatures of Russian legends. When a paranoid new stepmother and a fanatical Priest enter Vasya’s life, these spirits — and the world — are endangered, and Vasya must protect them, all while finding herself linked to a mysterious Winter demon by a strange bond. Arden’s prose is transportive and utterly absorbing — it’s the kind of novel that reminds you what “getting lost in a book” means. What’s so special about the world-building of this story is that Arden weaves together Russian folklore and Russian history into a complex and interlinked tapestry that ties folk tradition to Religious development and political conflict and demonstrates the value and power of storytelling traditions in cultures.
Vasya is one of my favourite protagonists I can remember having read in recent years — there’s a wildness, bordering on feralness, to her, but at the same time the burden of duty to her family and her country. Her journey and development through the trilogy develops her into a wonderfully complex and unique heroine. The characters surrounding Vasya are no less memorable. The relationships between Vasya and her brother, Alexei, is a fascinating take on a sibling bond. The two siblings find themselves on opposite sides of a widening gulf, but their love is a powerful force. Theirs is in many ways the emotional pulse of the series. Vasya’s closest friend in this series comes in an unexpected form, but it’s a friendship that buries itself in your heart. Also, no spoilers, but the romance in this trilogy is an absolute treasure.
- The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
You can’t talk about fairytale books without talking about the Queen of Fairytales herself, Angela Carter. As any fairytale enthusiast can tell you, Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is probably the best-known and most critically acclaimed collection of fairytale retellings there is and with good reason, because Carter’s twisted, feminist, and utterly delicious reworkings of old tales are some of the best in the business. But this post isn’t about retellings, so I’m recommending one of Carter’s novels, The Magic Toyshop. Many of her novels are rooted in magical realism, but this one, the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Melanie who, following the sudden death of her parents, must live with her strange relatives in her Uncle’s strange toyshop, is a favourite of mine. This is a fairytale by way of a Gothic family drama with a healthy dose of camp and absurd in classic Angela Carter fashion is bizarre, enthralling, and unsettling all at once.
Fair warning: the themes of this book are dark, twisted, even disturbing. Carter’s feminist overtures don’t shy away from exlporing sex and incest, and flouting other taboos. The combined effect is one that revels in the darker, more sinister underpinning of fairytales and fantasy. If you think about it, fairytales are some of the strangest, most dramatic and often twisted stories out there. And Angela Carter takes full advantage of that, bringing the high drama and feverish imagination of that to the story of one family in one shop for a reading experience that is disturbing yet impossible to look away from in its pyrotechnically fevered chaos.
As I said with Stardust, this book won’t be for everyone. If the number of times I’ve mentioned how strange this book is wasn’t a warning, let me reiterate. It is weird, and it goes to weird places. If it’s not your thing, you’ll know. If it is, however, then take it from me — you won’t be able to stop with one Angela Carter book.
- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
What this book does so beautifully is build itself upon a simple concept — that storytelling has enormous power, and can disclose difficult truths about real life. A Monster Calls follows a young boy called Conor, who struggles with his mother’s cancer and impending passing. Conor is visited by a strange, ancient creature, who demands “the truth” from him. Each night, the creature visits him, and each night, he tells Conor a story. It is, quite simply, spell-binding. The story feels simple and yet becomes all-encompassing and totally sweeping, embracing the atavistic powers of storytelling itself. It is also one of the most gut-wrenching, heart-rending, sucker-punching books I’ve ever read. The novel’s depiction of grief is raw, unflinching, and profoundly cathartic.
It’s a testament to storytelling as a function of being human, and for all that this book is heartbreaking, it’s also a celebration of that ancient and pervasive art. The combination of magical plot elements with painfully real, contemporary struggles paints a profoundly moving portrait of the relevance of storytelling to modern lives, as well as the ability of stories to question, challenge, and heal.
I hope you guys can celebrate the impending arrival of autumn (let me pretend Los Angeles has an autumn) by curling up with one of these beautiful books and getting swept away in the magic of fairytales for a while! If you’re a fellow fan of fairytales, what are some of your favourite books that capture their energy? Let me know in a comment, because I’m always on the hunt for more to feed my fixation!