By the time the Brothers Grimm published their first collection of fairy tales in 1812, many of the stories had been around for centuries, evolving as they crossed borders and generations. Writers, including those of science fiction and fantasy, continue to take inspiration from traditional lore, transforming the tales in ways that reflect their times.
“We want those comforting tropes to hold on to,” says Brit Hvide, senior editor at Orbit. “But we can’t just accept things the way they’ve been told to us; we have to turn them over and investigate them in a new way.”
PW spoke with SFF editors about forthcoming novels and short fiction collections that present old stories from new perspectives.
Familiar and subversive
Many fairy tales, Hvide says, are morality stories that reinforce gender stereotypes. Hannah Whitten’s debut epic fantasy, For the Wolf (Orbit, June), upends those conventions: the kingdom in the book is matriarchal, and the heroine, Red, has agency to choose her fate, including whom to love. “You’re seeing the queering of these stories, more people of color, feminist takes, sex-positive takes,” Hvide says of books like Whitten’s. “We want the familiar and the subversive as the same time.”
PW’s starred review called For the Wolf a “dark, dazzling reimagining of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ” noting that “Whitten lovingly weaves in elements from other fairy tales, including ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Snow White,’ while crafting a story that is all her own.”
The YA contemporary fantasy Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, a July release from Knopf Books for Young Readers, likewise draws on a variety of sources. “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen “functions as a frame story and structures the plot,” says Knopf BFYR senior editor Katherine R. Harrison, and Lim also incorporates elements from East Asian folklore, including the legends of Chang’e the Moon Goddess, Madame White Snake, and the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. “There’s been no shortage of folklore and fairy tale retellings,” Harrison adds, “and now, we’re seeing a very encouraging uptick in retellings based on non-Western folktales.”
Angela Mi Young Hur weaves East Asian folklore into her latest, Folklorn, which Erewhon is publishing in May. PW called it “a complex meditation on intergenerational trauma” that “[blurs] the lines between sci-fi and fantasy.” Korean American physicist Elsa Park struggles against the fate shared by women in her family, who are doomed to relive the narrative of four traditional tales.
Sarah Guan, an editor at Erewhon, explains the significance of one story in Folklorn—that of the Emmileh Bell: “It’s not just about a girl who was, literally, turned into a bell,” she says. “It’s about generations of women who have made sacrifices or who have been sacrificed as part of the path to getting to where we are today.” Hur’s book, she adds, “is about a daughter of immigrants interrogating her own mythology and her role in that narrative.”
The protagonist of Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister (Ace, May) engages with her Malaysian heritage through mythological means. In this “must-read fantasy,” per PW, Jessamyn Teoh graduates college in the U.S. and returns with her family to Penang, where she hasn’t lived since she was a toddler. Her grandmother enlists her in the service of her god, the Black Water Sister—an especially unexpected development, as her grandmother died the year before.
Teoh “incorporates the mythology of Malaysia into this very modern story,” says Anne Sowards, executive editor at Ace. She calls Black Water Sister an immigrant bildungsroman; Jess reconnects with a heritage that has felt remote since her family’s emigration.
“Folklore lends itself to exploring stories outside the dominant culture of a society,” says Adrienne Procaccini, senior editor at 47North. In June, the imprint is releasing Veronica Henry’s debut fantasy, Bacchanal, whose magic system is inspired by the author’s Sierra Leonean ancestry and the folklore surrounding Yoruba traditions. The book takes readers into what PW called “the haunting world behind the scenes of a 1930s carnival” through the experiences of Eliza, a young Black woman from Baton Rouge, La., who joins up with the traveling entertainers. Procaccini says Eliza learns “what her ancestry means and how she can use that to define her own powers.”
In Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman (Harper Voyager, June), “a fast-paced debut [that] examines religious freedom through the lens of myth and magic,” per PW, Évike discovers powers she didn’t know she had through retelling her home village’s folktales. “It’s very important that the last scene is Évike writing the stories down,” says David Pomerico, editorial director at Harper Voyager. “Everything is about story,” he adds—and about how those stories are presented, preserved, and passed down. The act of committing the tales to paper means “there’s something you can point to that says, ‘We were there. We matter.’ ”
Reid’s novel draws from her Hungarian and Jewish roots, Pomerico says. In The Light of the Midnight Stars, an April release from Orbit imprint Redhook, Rena Rossner leans into Jewish folklore, as well as 19th-century folklorist Andrew Lang’s version of “The Boys with the Golden Stars,” to examine anti-Semitism in medieval Europe. It’s one of several new books using traditional tales as a window onto history.
At the center of the story—which PW called a “complex meditation on tragedy and tradition” that is “as lovely as it is heartbreaking”—is a Jewish family, steeped in magic, who have to hide their identity in order to survive. Nivia Evans, senior editor at Orbit, says the author is “talking about pogroms and oppression of the Jewish people” and the methods by which Jews have survived anti-Semitic attacks. “It’s dealing with Jewish trauma,” she explains, through the tropes and “elevated language of folklore.”
P. Djèlí Clark, in A Master of Djinn (Tordotcom, May), imagines how history might have been altered if the folkloric figure of the djinn were real. The novel is set in the alternate 1912 Egypt he previously depicted in shorter works, including the 2019 novella “The Haunting of Tram Car 015”; PW’s starred review called the new book, Clark’s full-length debut, a “fantastic feat of postcolonial imagination.”
Ruoxi Chen, an editor at Tordotcom, says the author is “unafraid to acknowledge how colonialism intersects with core myths,” explaining that “the djinn in his world are integrated into the day-to-day landscape.” (Diana M. Pho acquired and edited the book; Chen is carrying it through to publication and will edit Clark’s future work.) Clark, a historian specializing in the transatlantic slave trade, has more on his mind than his story’s timeline, Chen says. “He’s thinking of how the production of Egyptian cotton impacted the U.S. economy and slavery,” which allows him to delve into the intercontinental machinery of imperialism.
Matt Bell, in the July Custom House release Appleseed, ponders manifest destiny and climate change using the Johnny Appleseed myth as a starting point. The novel unfolds over three timelines: the first reimagines Johnny as a mythological faun in the 18th century seeking to conquer the American wilderness for capitalism, the second is a techno-thriller set 50 years from now, and the third takes place a thousand years later, in a new ice age.
“Folktales and fairy tales are foundational stories,” says Kate Nintzel, executive editor at Custom House. Writers who incorporate them, she explains, can “assume a level of understanding with the reader. It gives you space to play with ideas.”
Joanne M. Harris’s Honeycomb (Saga, June) comprises original fairy tales, illustrated by Charles Vess, tracing the rise and fall of the Lacewing King of the Nine Worlds. The eerie vignettes are punctuated by politically tinged interstitial pieces whose influences include Aesop’s Fables and Animal Farm. In one story, for instance, a parrot convinces a herd of sheep not to vote, which allows dogs to take over the farm and eat them all.
“I think the creepiness has gotten lost in a lot of retellings, where the fairies are goth and cool and sexy and dark, and not scary at all,” says Joe Monti, editorial director at Saga Press. “Joanne put the scary back in.” PW’s starred review called the book “a strange, wondrous mosaic,” praising illustrator Charles Vess’s “evocative line drawings” and calling the overall effect “magical, poignant, and wholly transporting.”
In April, Del Rey will publish Malice, Heather Walter’s “superlative debut,” according to PW’s starred review. It’s a queer reimagining of “Sleeping Beauty” that sees the sorceress and princess fall for each other. “Fairy tales are stories we tell about who we are,”says Tricia Narwani, editor-in-chief at Del Rey Books. “Women and gender noncomforming people and queer people are taking back the stories that were always theirs and telling them themselves.”
Anna Kaufman, an editor at Vintage Books, also sees the importance of diverse retellings. “People of all kinds deserve to see themselves reflected in these stories,” she says. In Sword Stone Table (Vintage, July), edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, authors including Ken Liu, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Nisi Shawl rework Arthurian legends, offering, PW’s starred review said, “such a variety of style, theme, and genre that die-hard Arthurian fans and more casual readers will be equally delighted.” (See our q&a with Krishna and Northington.)
Young adult authors have been at the forefront of telling inclusive stories, including those that play with gender norms. Lish McBride’s Curses (Putnam, July) casts Beauty as a male con artist who relies on his good looks; a seemingly spoiled rich girl plays the Beast. The fantasy-in-verse The Seventh Raven (HMH, out now) by David Elliot, illustrated by Rovina Cai, reimagines “The Seven Ravens,” a Grimms’ fairy tale, “through a lens of perseverance and change,” PW’s starred review said. “Though all his parents want is a daughter, ‘girlish’ misfit Robyn lives a stifling life as the youngest of a temperamental woodsman’s seven competitive sons.” After the boys fall victim to an avian curse, Robyn, alone among his brothers, embraces the joy of flight.
Soman Chainani’s YA short story collection Beasts and Beauty (HarperCollins, Sept.) offers an array of representation in its 12 tales: a Black Snow White, an Indian Hansel and Gretel, a queer vampire version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The plots reflect “the rite of passage in adolescence from anxiety to self-assurance,” says Antonia Markiet, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Chainani’s “Bluebeard,” for instance, transforms the tale of a young bride escaping a murderous husband into the story of an orphaned boy breaking free of a cycle of abuse and returning to rescue the other boys in his orphanage. Julia Iredale’s illustrations are meant to evoke those of traditional fairy tale collections while illuminating what Markiet calls a “more representational” version of the stories.
“Fairy tales are a common language,” Markiet says, and the “foundation to understanding life and how we fit into it.” Returning to this familiar ground, she and other editors say, gives authors the space to question the tales we tell ourselves, how they’ve been told to us, and how they continue to define us.
Elyse Martin, a writer in Washington, D.C., has also published in Electric Literature, the Toast, Tor.com, and elsewhere.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Joe Monti's name, and used a different transliteration for "Emmileh Bell" than the one that appears in Folklorn.
Below, more on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror books.
New Seats at the Round Table: PW Talks with Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington
The editors of 'Sword Stone Table' (Vintage, July), an inclusive anthology of Arthurian retellings, discuss why Camelot is "ripe for exploration and reinterpretation."
What Fresh Hell Is This?: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror 2021
PW looks at the new Nightfire horror imprint and the latest novels from Grady Hendrix, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rivers Solomon.
The (Im)persistence of Memory: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror 2021
New books untangle the often-fragile links between recollection and identity.