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Witch Week: A new take on old stories

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors hosted at Emerald City Book Review. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

Folktales and fairy tales are an enormous part of my internal landscape–it’s almost impossible to overstate how important they’ve been to me since childhood. My mom had a huge Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and I read all of it at least twice. Later, I grew to love modern retellings, starting with Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

Most often, I tend to like the retellings that thoughtfully examine the original story rather than reversing it completely. But I’ve also found some retellings that come at the story slantwise. These don’t so much destroy the original as remake it. I’m going to talk a bit today about three novels and one short story that I think do this and that I love.

winter princegirls at the kingfisherbone gap

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein: This is Wein’s debut book, and it’s a retelling of the Arthurian legend from Mordred/Medraut’s point of view. But it has more in common with Rosemary Sutcliff than with Merlin; it’s dark and twisty and shows a world that’s full of texture and vibrant personalities. For me, it both humanizes Medraut and also still gives us the kingly Arthur of the myths. I am slightly overcome by how much I love this book just thinking about it now. Also, it gives us Goewin, and I LOVE Goewin.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales ever of all time ever. It’s set in the 1920s and it includes no magic whatsoever, but it keeps the structure and heart of the story, while at the same time using it as a way to talk about family and fathers and abuse and love. I’ve been going on about this one since I read it and I want everyone in the world to try it.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby: This is a 2015 YA which has been getting a lot of attention and rightly so–it’s a stunning, complex look at the dark side of the Persephone/Beauty and the Beast story. I truly love both the myth and fairy tale, and many of the newer stories that have echoed them. But I also truly loved this story, which reminds us of the possible darkness inherent within those stories. Roza, the heroine of this story, is a wonderful character in her own right as well.

The Queen of Atlantis” by Sarah Rees Brennan: I’m a big fan of Sarah Rees Brennan’s work in general, but this short story is one of my all time favorite things she’s written. One of the things I love most about it is that, as a friend pointed out, Mede is a name that has echoes in Greek mythology. But is it Andromeda or Medea? We never know; we never quite find out. While SRB doesn’t directly quote any one myth, the whole story feels like it has echoes and beats that evoke them.

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Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

bone gapFinn O’Sullivan is used to people leaving him. His father died a long time ago and his mother walked away from him and his brother, Sean, to start a new life in Oregon. But when Roza, the girl who appeared in the O’Sullivan’s barn, is abducted by a mysterious man, Finn is the only one who sees and the only one who won’t give up until she’s found.

Roza herself is actually a point of view character, but when I tried to write a plot summary for her part, it turned out to be horrifically spoilery. But she, no less than Finn, is at the heart of this story and important to it. She is no voiceless damsel; in fact, she is possibly my favorite character.

I’ve liked Laura Ruby’s books in the past–The Wall & The Wing and The Chaos King are complex, inventive stories. But Bone Gap is really something else. It’s a story that combines many of my favorite things, and I truly loved it.

I am a huge fan of stories about families, especially when relationships between siblings are at the heart of the book. This is definitely the case when it comes to Bone Gap. Roza’s disappearance is hard for Finn because she’s his friend, but Sean was going to propose to her. Since she’s disappeared, the brothers barely talk. It’s a hard thread to read because I want so much for them to be all right.

And then there’s the town of Bone Gap. A lot of times “quirky” towns just don’t work for me, but here there’s something deeper and maybe darker underlying the quirkiness. There are bullies and heartbreak and people leave. There’s also corn that whispers to people and possibly magical bees. I got a sense both for why people love the town, and why it is a little bit broken.

Woven into all of this is an echo of fairy tales and mythology that give the story a lot of depth and resonance. It’s one of my favorite fairy tales/myths, and Ruby shows us the dark side of it. (I don’t want to give too much away here, so I’m being cagey. Part of the joy of this book is seeing the pattens come together both in subtle and more obvious ways.) But I think it’s possible to love both the original and Roza’s story. And it says a lot about our world and the way women are treated, which is important but also comes naturally to this particular story and what it’s about.

While there is darkness here, it’s never utterly bleak. I loved the resolution and the sense of hope hard won. I laughed at some parts and cried at others. It’s a beautifully written, emotionally devastating story that will stay with me for a long time.

Book source: ARC from ALA Midwinter
Book information: 2015, Balzer + Bray; YA fantasy