The second season of the acclaimed television show The Witcher came out on December 17th and I, for one, am eager to bingewatch! I vividly remember watching the first season with my mom in the winter of 2019 (which wow, what a different world it was then). I went into it with low expectations (I was skeptical of Henry-Cavill-as-Geralt, who as far as I knew was supposed to be a grizzled old man) and finished it pleasantly surprised that I’d enjoyed it as much as I did.
This November, I finally read the book that the first season is based on—The Last Wish, which is actually the prequel to the series. I don’t know how I missed it (and plan to re-watch the first season to pick up on the clues) but The Last Wish is made up of several rewritten fairytales. Renfri, for example, is a parallel to Snow White! WHAT!
I adore fairytale retellings (I’ve written a few myself, and am working on a retelling of Aladdin and Arabian Nights as part of my fantasy series), so this was an utterly delight discovery. If you also enjoy fairytale retellings in the vein of The Witcher—that is, more dark and adult than the Disney adaptations—here are my recommendations!
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter containes several retellings, including ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Red Riding Hood’, ‘Snow White’, and more! The story that stuck with me the most, and my favourite of them all, is the eponymous ‘Bloody Chamber’ for it’s ending. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but the resolution of this particular retelling was both satisfying and refreshing! As for the prose, it was eloquent and entrancing, lending itself perfectly to the ‘fairy tale’ aspect. Take, for instance, this quote: “The withered blackberries dangled like their own dour spooks on the discoloured brambles.”
I also enjoyed the various settings Carter depicted; we get modern, traditional fantasy, and sci-fi! It’s definitely an adult series of short stories, with plenty of blood, violence, horror, sensuality and sexuality. Very few of the characters are actually…likeable (which I find is par for the course with adult fiction) but Carter’s characters are all engaging. They make terrible decisions, they lash out at each other, they’re angry or resentful or obsessive or selfish or cruel (and sometimes all those things at once) but they grip your attention from beginning to end.
Fables by Bill Willingham is a series of graphic novels that read like Marvel comics, if instead of superheroes, you had figures of fairytales, legends, and folklore as the characters. Set in modern-day New York (for a given definition of ‘modern’, of course), these beloved characters are living in exile in a secret society called ‘Fabletown’, doing their best to fit in with the ‘real’ world.
…And then Snow White’s sister is murdered, and the plot unfolds, featuring various recognizable characters but always with a twist. What starts out as a murder-mystery soon turns out to be much bigger. No one can be trusted; the people that seem to be the good guys are kind of terrible, and those who have always played villains are much more likeable. Heck, the lead investigator is the Big Bad Wolf! There’s also a delightful noir undertone, with the associated dark humour, femme fatales, and tropey twists and turns.
Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman has haunted me since the first time I read it. It’s very short, but has a stunningly impactful plot, as well as absolutely gorgeous art from Colleen Doran.
The premise is immaculately considered too—what if there was a reason Snow’s beauty is described in such gruesome terms (lips red as blood)? What if there was a reason her stepmother tried to kill her so many times? Why on earth did the prince see a corpse in a glass coffin and want to kiss her?
This retelling definitely plays up the horror and necrophilia implications that were merely suggestions in the original, and does so with a deft hand. Sometimes adult retellings of fairy tales can feel a bit needlessly, gratuitously awful. But this retelling is founded on the creepy elements of ‘Snow White’ that were always there. Gaiman just expounds on a pre-existing potential.
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente is another one of those books that haunted me after reading it. Valente is one of my favourite authors, and I have yet to dislike anything she’s written. If you enjoy lyrical but sharp prose (you do not get lost in what is being said, but you are still so moved by it), fantastical worldbuilding firmly and immovable rooted in history (in this case, war-torn 20th century Russia but also, as a whole, Russian folklore and culture), complex and amoral characters, and—of course—fairy tales, then Deathless is the book for you.
The story follows Marya Morevna of Russian folklore, reimagined as a real girl in the real world, and her relationship with Koschei the Deathless throughout her life, from childhood to adulthood. We veer into and out of Koschei’s world and Marya’s like a fish swimming through different currents, where sometimes the differences between the two are clear-cut, while at other times they don’t seem to be all that different at all. Valente is a genius at writing magical realism; without spoiling anything, the siege of Leningrad is one such instance where the world is both fairy and all too horribly, tragically real.
I stand by my review when I first finished it: that reading this is like dreaming, and finishing it is like waking from a dream and not being sure you woke at all.
Finally, I’d recommend Valente’s duology The Orphan Tales, beginning with In The Night Garden and concluding with In the Cities of Coin and Spice. (I did tell you I love Valente’s work, so it’s only to be expected that I rave about two more of her works). The Orphan Tales are, like the Arabian Nights and Boccaccio’s Decameron, a frame narrative and borrow from both in content as well as style. They are also absolutely gorgeous, lush reads from beginning to end.
The Orphan Tales are, essentially, a single long novel broken up into two volumes and further broken up into short stories that don’t, at first, seem as interwoven as they are (and they absolutely are). But at their heart, at their core, the duology is about two very lonely children, finding belonging and solace with each other, and eventually finding home.
While a sorrowful story (and yes, for those in the know, that is a pun) it is not as bittersweet or grim as Deathless. It even has (spoiler alert) a happy ending!
I have a few more books to recommend, though I haven’t read them myself—they’re on my to read list, and maybe they’re on yours too!
Uprooted by Naomi Novik: about a girl who lives in a valley on the edge of a strange and malicious Wood, who’s people sacrifice a girl every ten years to a mysterious Dragon, with a beautiful best friend she fears will be the next sacrifice…
The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid: rooted in Hungarian history and Jewish mythology, it is about a young woman with secret powers and a one-eyed huntsman, and their quest to overthrow an evil king.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: drawing on Mexican folklore and set in the beautiful, turbulent Jazz Age, this is the story of Casiopea and the Mayan god of death and their search for freedom—his, from his evil brother, but also hers, from the smallness and suffocation of her dusty town.
If you’ve read any of these titles, drop a comment and let me know what you thought of them! Better yet, recommend your own favourite fairytales and retellings! Until next time, I leave you with this lovely quote:
“If you happen to read fairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.”— G.K. Chesterton