Six Magical Fairy Tales Grown-Ups Will Love
Updated: Feb 6
01 The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
This is an ancient-feeling, dark fairy tale of a story that takes place within a small Russian village and centers around an extended family.
"True believers" are pitted against dark, feared forces, turning what the village collectively believes to be good and pure on its head. Those who triumph over destructive righteousness, blind obedience, and attempts at wielding selfish power do so by remembering the old ways, defying expectations, and showing limitless bravery.
A few elements (tying the original appearances of the dark force to later more fully realized appearances, for example) meandered along and might've been shored up more fully. But the writing was ethereal and practically brought a chill to my skin as I read about the snow and cold danger. The main protagonist and conflicted priest were irresistible characters.
The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in the Winternight trilogy. The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch are the others, and I think Arden's stories get even stronger as the series goes on, with complex interpersonal relationships, court politics, mystical creatures, and wonderful character development.
02 The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I'm a sucker for hardscrabble Alaska stories, but this book goes well beyond that. In The Snow Child, Ivey shares a luminous tale, based on a Russain folktale, set in the snow and unforgiving cold.
In 1920s Alaska, Jack and Mabel are struggling. They desperately wanted children, but that part of their lives was not destined to be. They're getting older, and Jack buries himself in the backbreaking work on the farm while Mabel turns inward, driven to despair and hopelessness.
In an impossible, magical turn of events, a moment of simple winter joy leads to renewed hope that they may be able to share their love with a child after all.
Ivey intersperses fairy tale-like elements with evocative details of the cold, stark atmosphere in which they take place. I wasn't initially sure I was going to be able to suspend my disbelief as I dove into the story, but Ivey engrossed me fully in the world and its workings. I really liked this story and I still think about this book, years after reading it.
My book club was not unanimously sold on this book, to the point that I'm tempted to include it in a future Greedy Reading List called "Books to Break Your Book Club." But if you like magical realism, this is a hauntingly lovely, wintry read.
Ivey's book To the Bright Edge of the World was also wonderful, and will appear on the upcoming Greedy Reading List Six Books with Cold, Wintry Settings to Read by the Fire.
03 Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Miryem comes from a family of moneylenders who are on the verge of being unable to provide for themselves any longer. So Miryem sets herself the task of collecting the debts owed to her family, earning her the reputation of being able to spin silver into gold. When a foolish boast forces Miryem into a position of meeting the tsar's impossible challenge, she finds that the mysterious tsar isn't what he seems. The swirl of events draws other innocent young women into Miryem's complicated web and toward potential ruin for all of them.
Spinning Silver is a creatively and fully reimagined version of Rumpelstiltskin, but Novik goes well above and beyond that fairy tale. Novik's story offers endless odd, lovely, unexpected, and complex elements.
The magical and irresistible tale includes protagonists with kickass girl power; multiple and haunting twists and turns I was eager to ride out with the characters; and a magic touch in telling a well-known story with more heart that I would have imagined.
04 The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
In Helene Wecker's tale, which has roots in Jewish and Arab folk mythology, the lives of two outwardly human mythical creatures intersect in the dark Bowery of late 19th century New York.
Chavia is a golem of clay brought to life by a desperate, disgraced rabbi, sent across the ocean to New York City, while Ahmad is a jinni, a being made of fire created in the ancient Syrian desert and trapped in a copper flask that makes its way to New York City as well. The two become linked and grow to be unlikely soul mates.
The Golem and the Jinni explores issues of ownership, responsibility, and belonging, as Wecker simultaneously digs into the creatures' feelings, loyalty, and true affection.
Wecker offers sentimental moments of discovery, yet the tone of the book often feels dispassionate, as though it is a study of such things, measured at a distance. This is magical realism, folklore, and historical fiction wrapped up in one very interesting read.
05 The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
The Night Tiger is a wonderful historical fiction mystery and love story shaped by superstition, fables, and tales.
Ji Lin is a young girl who would have dreamed of becoming a doctor if society would allow it, but she's stuck working off her mother's Mahjong debts by being a lowly dance hall girl. She encounters a Chinese houseboy, Ren, on a bizarre mission, and their paths become intertwined around a superstition that men can turn into tigers.
Ji Lin doesn’t fit the mold of a typical woman from 1930s Malaysia or that of the British colonists living there—in all wonderful ways. She’s itching for (and finds) adventure, knowledge, and much more in her life than the loveless match she was expected to make.
She speaks her mind and ruffles feathers even as she exploits assumptions about women, sexual attraction, and power.
There's magical realism at the heart of this book, and Choo also examines colonialism, superstition, and young love. I thought it was fascinating.
I listed this book in the Greedy Reading List Six Historical Fiction Mysteries to Intrigue You.
06 Uprooted by Naomi Novik
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Agnieszka has grown up in a quiet village, surrounded by people she loves. But evil lurks in the nearby Wood, with the dark presence of the wizard they call the Dragon looming over all of them. The Dragon keeps them safe from the Wood, but at a high price: each year he demands one young woman from the village. She is taken for ten years to serve him.
The next choosing is coming up quickly, and Agnieszka is sure that her best friend Kasia will be next to go. She considers every desperate plan she can to try to save Kasia from this horrible fate, knowing all the while that she cannot prevent what is to happen.
This is the second Naomi Novik book on this short list because she reimagines fairy tales so captivatingly. Uprooted is a thoughtful, satisfying grown-up fairy tale with gloriously imagined details. I ate it up.
I feel compelled to also mention that Novik has a series of nine books about dragons, the Temeraire series, and yes, the dragons talk and are haughty and greedy and intensely loyal to their riders, and yes, there are lots of world politics and nations' relationships and airborne dragon battles within the books, and yes, the human protagonists are wonderfully faulted and fantastic.
What are some of your favorite fairy tale-type books or retellings?
For the purposes of this list, I focused on books with fantastical elements; clear good-and-evil conflicts; characters living as royalty or in poverty or both; traditional or newly imagined imagery; metamorphoses, enchantments, or magic; a concentration on wishes and dreams; and especially those with roots in fairy tales, fables, or folklore.
Many other titles could also potentially fall under this umbrella, including Gregory Maguire's Wicked and other books, F.C. Yee's Epic Crush of Genie Lo and its sequels, Alexandra Christo's To Kill a Kingdom series, and Marissa Meyer's Cinder and others.
Some promising books on my to-read list would fit this bill as well, including: Thorn by Intisar Khanani, Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente, and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.
What other books would you include on this list? What fairy tales for grown-ups have you loved?