While my debut novel The Hazel Wood is not itself a retelling, it borrows shiny pieces from classic fairy tales, and plays with well-known tropes in its story of a girl whose life is haunted by the supernatural legacy of her recently deceased grandmother, a cult author of dark fairy tales. While the Grimm Brothers' stories and other classics of the genre aren't noted for being terribly feminist, some amazing authors have taken the bones of the originals and dressed them anew. Here are five wonderfully feminist retellings of fairy tales.
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
I love what Rosamund Hodge does with fairy tales (and, in the case of Bright Smoke, Cold Fire, with Shakespeare): she turns them inside out and gives them strange new skins, maintaining their internal logic while rendering them nearly unrecognizable. Cruel Beauty is a Beauty and the Beast retelling with shades of the Thousand and One Nights, in which a girl is betrothed by her father's foolishness to the powerful sorcerer Ignifex, but plans to kill him and destroy the curse laid on her people at the same time. But the man, his surreal palace, and the true nature of the curse surprise her, in a feminist retelling that dispels the whiff of Stockholm Syndrome hanging around the original tale.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
What can I say, I can't resist a great Beauty and the Beast retelling. Novik's take is set in a land beset by corrupting magic, where a wizard known as the Dragon takes a female villager as his servant every ten years, then lets her go with full pockets down the line. Little else is known of the nature of his relations with these women, so when Agnieszka is his unexpected choice, she kisses her old life goodbye and sets her sights on making herself happy in her new one. She's level headed, practical, and tough, but truly comes into her own when the Dragon starts teaching her magic. Once her ambition is awoken, everything takes a back seat to her growing abilities, and her world's increasingly urgent need for them, as an annihilating dark magic creeps closer and closer to the Dragon's doors.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird is a deeply humane, utterly unsentimental retelling of Snow White, that manages to retain the dark enchantments of its source material while utterly expunging its hoarier elements: the flatly vanity-driven evil of the wicked stepmother, Snow White's identity as a pretty girl who waits. Boy's is running from a cruel upbringing when she meets and marries a widower with a captivating daughter, Snow. It isn't until Boy's own daughter, Bird, is born that Boy begins her transformation into a wicked stepmother. Bird's dark skin reveals that her father and half-sister have only been passing as white, and kicks off a transformation in her mother's feelings toward stepdaughter Snow, whose sweet innocence begins, to her, to feel like manipulation. No character is seen as purely evil, none as purely good, in a complicated, female-focused fairy-tale retelling that ranges widely from the shape of the original.
Deathless by Catherynne Valente
Deathless is gorgeous, dark and deep, as bracing as a slug of icy vodka or a dive into a snowbank. It's a retelling of the myth of Koschei the Deathless, who removed his death from his body and hid it so well he's nearly immortal. He spirits young Marya from her home to a fey otherworld, but she doesn't stay young and foolish forever. In a story that moves between a brutal magical world and an impoverished real one, Marya comes of age and becomes her seducer's undoing.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In another Russian retelling, this time of Vasya the Beautiful, Katherine Arden reimagines Vasya as the wild, tale-loving daughter of a rural lord. Raised on her beloved nurse's tales, she takes it in stride that only she can see the spirits of the house and wood, as well as, most dangerously, Morozko the winter king. Her adventures, in this book and in wonderful sequel The Girl in the Tower, are those of a girl unwilling to submit to either marriage or the nunnery, the two paths open to females of her rank and era. Watching her break free from her prescribed path is breathless fun.