If you like Once Upon a Time
20 great fairy tale retellings for adults
If you like fairy tale retellings similar to the hit TV series “Once Upon a Time”, this list is for you. Get lost in a fearsome or fabulous retelling of your favorite tale of cursed princesses, ill fitting shoes, and tortured souls. Maybe meet a god or two. Whatever book you pick, you are sure to discover a fresh twist to the classic stories of magic, bravery, and villains. For staff recommendations, see the books marked with a star ( ).
Last updated 5/24/2022
|The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden ( )
First in the Winternight trilogy.
From Booklist: “*Starred Review* Gracefully threaded with Russian fairy tales and a tactile sense of place, Arden’s debut tells the story of Vasya, daughter of a supposed witch, in the northern reaches of medieval Russia. As a child, Vasya’s conversations with wood sprites and household spirits were an odd, but tolerable, feature, but when her father marries deeply pious, troubled Anna, Vasya learns to keep her otherworldly friends a secret. They don’t stay secret for long, however: a fanatical priest quickly catches on, and he becomes obsessed with Vasya’s salvation, while Anna roils with anger over her stepdaughter’s brazen disregard for propriety. Most treacherous of all, two supernatural beings, Morozko and Medved, see powerful opportunities in Vasya’s gifts. And while Vasya tries to ward off Medved’s nefarious grasp on her village, political rumblings from Moscow threaten their status quo, and the villagers become wary of Vasya’s inexplicable talents and boldness. In a lush narrative with the cadence of a fairy tale, Arden weaves an immersive, earthy story of folk magic, faith, and hubris, peopled with vivid, dynamic characters, particularly clever, brave Vasya, who outsmarts men and demons alike to save her family. This beautifully written, auspicious first novel is utterly bewitching.”
|The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
First in the Nursery Crime series.
From Library Journal: “Starred Review. Fforde’s first Jack Spratt novel offers plenty of the same wacky charm as his increasingly popular Thursday Next series, in which Jack is a supporting player. TheBig Over Easy was actually written years ago only to be set aside when rejected by publishers, who have to be kicking themselves. While Thursday mingles with characters from Shakespeare and Victorian novels in her mysteries, Jack is relegated to the less-glamorous Nursery Crime Division. Jack earns new respect, however, when called upon, with sidekick Mary Mary, to investigate the murder of Humpty Dumpty and becomes entangled with the legendary egg’s ex-wife and assorted lovers, as well as rival foot-care magnates, a jealous colleague, a former film star, a psychiatrist âcrazier than a barrel of skunks,â a giant beanstalk, a Mafia don named Giorgio Porgia, and the Titan Prometheus. The wildly imaginative Fforde delights in satirizing the clichés of detective fiction.”
|The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth
From Booklist: “*Starred Review* Setting her tale during the violence and political upheaval of Napoleon I’s central European campaign, Forsyth tells the true story of Dortchen Wild, source of many of the most beloved fairy tales compiled by the famous Grimm brothers. Spanning a nearly 20-year period, kindhearted and rebellious Dortchen is followed from adolescence to womanhood as she contends with a cruel and abusive father, a backbreaking work regimen, and constant family illness and tragedy. Through all of her own personal turmoil (in many ways, Dortchen’s life resembles that of a tortured heroine in a Grimm fairy tale), she provides material and emotional support to the impoverished Grimm family, and eventually falls in love with the sweet and studious Wilhelm Grimm. As a doctoral candidate in fairy-tale studies, Forsyth provides fascinating insight into the complex politics involved in the Grimms’ ambitious project, including the nationalistic sentiment amid the French takeover of Europe that prompted them to preserve their culture. But more than that, this is a beautiful and often heartbreaking love story that is sure to move and captivate readers.”
|The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman
From Publisher’s Weekly: “Always a superb spinner of tales, Gaiman presents a filigreed elaboration of Sleeping Beauty that, before long, reveals itself as something more. Three dwarves discover a realm in which everyone has fallen asleep, and they cross into the next country to warn its queen of the great plague that threatens her people. Alert readers won’t miss the hint to the queen’s identity: “Would I sleep, as they did?” she asks one of the dwarfs, who replies, “You slept for a year…. And then you woke again, none the worse for it.” Traveling to the cursed kingdom, the queen and dwarves encounter threatening zombie sleepers and more, but the storyline is still recognizable underneath the new details. It isn’t until the travelers penetrate the castle that things tilt sideways. Something new is going on, and readers will be carried to the end by the whirlwind force of Gaiman’s imagination. Riddell draws in pen and ink, eschewing color-save for select gold accents-and pouring his energy into myriad, spidery lines and delicate cross-hatching that recall Aubrey Beardsley’s eerie set pieces. It’s a genuine treat.”
|A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow ( )
First in the Fractured Fables series.
From Library Journal: “Harrow (The Once and Future Witches) gives a feminist twist to the classic Sleeping Beauty tale in this inventive and empowering novella, which is the first in a new series of fairy tale retellings. Zinnia Gray’s 21st birthday is bittersweet; she has a rare condition that no one has ever lived with past the age of 22. The clock is ticking, and she is torn between wanting to enjoy her own life and comforting her parents. When her best friend throws her a surprise birthday party in an old prison tower complete with warm beer, roses, and an old spindle, Zinnia is touched. She may be too old for her favorite fairy tale, but what’s the harm in a little make-believe? When she jokingly pricks her finger on the spindle, she is transported to another time and place where a young girl’s clock is running out just like hers. The two girls decide to take their destinies into their own hands and race against the clock and their curses to make better futures for themselves. “
|The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman
From Booklist: “Over the course of writing her 18 beguiling novels, Hoffman has perfected her unique and vivifying blend of romance, magic, and redemption, a mode of storytelling she uses with great panache to link the workings of nature with the spectrum of human emotions. Here she draws on her key inspiration, fairy tales, and her fascination with how chaos theory makes the connection between, let’s say, the flapping of a bat’s wings and a young girl’s anger at her mother. Ever since she was eight years old, Hoffman’s narrator, a devoted reference librarian, has believed that her temper tantrum caused her mother’s death. Her guilt turned her solitary, stoic, and somewhat misanthropic, and she envisions herself as an ice queen. Even after she is struck by lightning. As her damaged narrator reluctantly joins a lightning-strike-survivor support group, Hoffman dramatizes the bizarre effects experienced by real-life lightning strike survivors, and orchestrates a highly erotic and risky romance between the ice queen and a fellow survivor known as Lazarus, whose breath ignites paper. As Hoffman’s spellbinding and wonderfully insightful tale unfurls, she pays charming tribute to librarians, revels in metaphors of hot and cold, and poetically explores the meaning of trust, the chemistry of healing, and the reach of love.”
|The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
From the publisher: “Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.”
|Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman
From Booklist: “*Starred Review* Carol is prone to falling into comas that mimic death for days at a time. Only her husband, Dwight, and her friend John Bowie, whose burial opens the novel, know her secret. With Bowie gone for Carol’s next spell, Dwight fakes her death and attempts to bury her alive. So begins this retelling of Sleeping Beauty as a tale that mixes suspense, dark fantasy, and the spaghetti western, holding the reader hostage in its magical and sinister thrall. The major players take their turns narrating the story, including but not limited to dastardly Dwight; Carol’s long lost, outlaw love, Moxie; and Smoke, the perfectly rendered villain. The most interesting narrator is Carol, trapped in her coma, frantically struggling to save herself. Malerman (Bird Box, 2014) seamlessly blends strong world building, a steadily escalating pace, and a tone that is breathtaking and menacing. This is an intricately plotted, lyrical page turner about love, betrayal, revenge, and the primal fear of being buried alive.”
|Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia ( )
From Library Journal: “This latest stand-alone from Moreno-Garcia (Signal to Noise; The Beautiful Ones) is a stirring historical fantasy set in the Roaring Twenties and steeped in Mayan mythology. Headstrong Casiopea Tun and her mother are treated horribly by their more wealthy relations. She’s been her grandfather’s maid ever since they returned to their small village after her father’s death. When she discovers the bones of a decapitated Mayan god of death in the patriarch’s secret chest, she sets off a chain of events that could not only change her fortunes but also the fate of the world. The revived (and broodingly handsome) Hun-Kamé takes her on a cross-country adventure–from the Yucatán to Mexico City, Arizona, and more–in search of his missing body parts, which his twin brother and rival has scattered among demons, sorcerers, and others. Lavish clothes; jazzy music; and ruminations on life, death, fate, and the cosmos combine with blood-drenched nightmares, grisly religious rituals, and road-trip high jinks. An author’s note and glossary of Spanish and Nahuatl terms further explores the source material. Snappy dialog, stellar worldbuilding, lyrical prose, and a slow-burn romance make this a standout.”
|If the Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy
First in theMeant To Be series.
From Booklist: “Cinderella meets The Bachelor in the adult debut of Murphy, author of the enormously popular YA Dumplin’ series. Cindy, a shoe-obsessed recent design school graduate without any sure career prospects in New York returns to L.A. and her stepfamily to figure things out. Her stepmother is the executive producer of the relationship reality show Before Midnight, and when contestant spots open up at the last minute, Cindy and her stepsisters jump in. For Cindy, this is a chance to showcase her designs and get name recognition. When she starts receiving press for being the first plus-size woman on the show and begins to fall for Henry, the suitor whose attention the contestants are all vying for, this entire undertaking becomes a lot more important and life-altering than Cindy expected. In Murphy’s breezy and fun rom-com, there’s enough of Cinderella in the story to be charming, yet overall it sparkles like an exciting new tale. One particularly refreshing update is that the stepfamily is caring and supportive, not evil. Cindy is immensely lovable, and readers will root for all her dreams to come true.”
|Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik ( )
From Publisher’s Weekly: “This gorgeous, complex, and magical novel, grounded in Germanic, Russian, and Jewish folklore but richly overlaid with a cohesive, creative story of its own, rises well above a mere modern re- imagining of classic tales. Novik (Uprooted) begins the story through the eyes of Miryem, a Jewish moneylender’s daughter, whose pride in her ability to wring payments from borrowers draws the demanding attention of the terrifying, otherworldly, and rules-bound Staryk, who are ruled by a wintry, gold-loving king. Secondary characters-a peasant boy, a duke’s daughter, a tsar-eventually become narrators, weaving interconnections that feel simultaneously intimate and mythic. Novik probes the edges between the everyday and the extraordinary, balancing moods of wonder and of inevitability. Her work inspires deep musings about love, wealth, and commitment, and embodies the best of the timeless fairy-tale aesthetic. Readers will be impressed by the way Novik ties the myriad threads of her story together by the end, and, despite the book’s length, they will be sad to walk away from its deeply immersive setting. This is the kind of book that one might wish to inhabit forever.”
|The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
From Booklist: “*Starred Review* Not even Obreht’s place on the New Yorker’s current 20 under 40 list of exceptional writers will prepare readers for the transporting richness and surprise of this gripping novel of legends and loss in a broken land. Drawing on the former Yugoslavia’s fabled past and recent bloodshed, Belgrade-born Obreht portrays two besieged doctors. Natalia is on an ill-advised good will medical mission at an orphanage on what is suddenly the other side, now that war has broken out, when she learns that her grandfather, a distinguished doctor forced out of his practice by ethnic divides, has died far from home. She is beset by memories, particularly of her grandfather taking her to the zoo to see the tigers. We learn the source of his fascination in mesmerizing flashbacks, meeting the village butcher, the deaf-mute Muslim woman he married, and a tiger who escaped the city zoo after it was bombed by the Germans. Of equal mythic mystery is the story of the deathless man. Moments of breathtaking magic, wildness, and beauty are paired with chilling episodes in which superstition overrides reason; fear and hatred smother compassion; and inexplicable horror rules. Every word, every scene, every thought is blazingly alive in this many-faceted, spellbinding, and rending novel of death, succor, and remembrance.”
|Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
From Booklist: “Like her Boy, Snow, Bird (2014), Oyeyemi’s latest is a clever subversion of fairy tale tropes to expose the secrets, entanglements, and estrangements within a family. Harriet Lee lives in England with her teenage daughter, Perdita, but no matter how much gingerbread Harriet makes, she can’t seem to win over the haughty parents at her daughter’s school. And then Perdita falls victim to what seems like an overdose. When Perdita awakens, she reveals that she was trying to reach Druhastrana, the mythological land of her mother’s youth. This inspires Harriet to unspool her own story, telling Perdita about her childhood in a land based on financial inequality, her mother Margot’s marriage to a poor farmer, and the family’s eventual involvement with the wealthy Kerchevels. That turned Harriet’s life upside down, introducing her to the whimsical, magical Gretel and paving the way for her and Margot’s move to England. Both a scathing indictment of capitalism and a tribute to the maddeningly inescapable endurance of family bonds, this enchanting tale will resonate with literary fiction lovers.”
|The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid
From Booklist: “In Reid’s thought-provoking fantasy, a pagan girl lacking her people’s magic and a shunned prince whose monotheistic religion calls for her blood come together to save their homeland from a foe greater than each other. Every few years, the king’s holy warriors, the Woodsmen, take a wolf-girl from Évike’s forested village; in exchange, they are spared the king’s retribution. Without magic, Évike is worthless to both groups–except, she learns, as a sacrifice, for when the Woodsmen demand a seer, the village’s táltos sends Évike instead. This deception is uncovered when forest monsters decimate their party. Without a seer, Prince Gáspár believes the king will fall to Gáspár’s zealot brother, Nándor, who intends to seize the throne and start a holy war. In the spirit of mutually assured destruction, Évike and Gáspár regroup with a new plan to save a king they both hate, battling monsters, religious intolerance, and their own feelings. With a setting rich in detail and folklore, a fascinating look at the complex morality of religious disagreements, and an enemies-to-lovers romance between strong characters, this is an excellent debut..”
|Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
From Booklist: “*Starred Review* The jinn, Rushdie tells us, are creatures made of smokeless fire, shape-shifters infused with powers that defy our experience of gravity and time. They live in their own world, yet they can’t resist meddling in our affairs. …Rushdie is having wickedly wise fun here. Every character has a keenly hilarious backstory, and the action (flying carpets and urns, gigantic attacking serpents, lightning strikes, to-the-death combat, sex) surges from drastic and pulse-raising to exuberantly madcap, magical, and genuinely emotional. Rushdie scatters intriguing allusions (Beckett, Magritte, Gogol, Obama) about like fairy dust and coins of the realm while sustaining swiftly flowing, incisive, piercingly funny commentary on everything from religious extremists to reality TV, anti-Semitism and racism, and economic injustice. Rushdie muses over kismet and our perpetual bewilderment about the harsh realities of life, made worse by war and global warming. He even offers a wry glimpse into the future to conclude this fantastically inventive, spirited, astute, and delectable update of One Thousand and One Nights.”
|Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan
First in the Celestial Kingdom series.
From Publishers Weekly: “Tan’s remarkable debut and duology launch transports readers into a stunning world built from Chinese legend and replete with mythical creatures, magical artifacts, and mortal entanglements. The moon goddess, Chang’e, is imprisoned in her palace where she hides her secret, half-mortal daughter, Xingyin. When Xingyin’s existence is exposed to the Celestial Emperor, she’s forced to flee her home–but rather than laying low, she sets out on a mission to free her mother. She disguises herself in order to navigate the devious workings of the Celestial imperial court, hoping to gain enough status to bargain with the Celestial Emperor himself. Along the way, she becomes companion to the Crown Prince, finds a confidante in the Captain of the Celestial Army, and follows in her mortal father’s footsteps to become a renowned archer. But Xingyin’s coming-of-age adventures inevitably force her to choose between the people she loves and the fate of the world. Tan paints a lush, sparkling world in her inventive reimagining of the age-old Chinese folktale. The result is a riveting page-turner that will leave fantasy lovers satisfied and eager for more.”
|All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller
From Booklist: “*Starred Review* Among the many Cinderella adaptations, Teller’s reimagined tale, told from the point of view of Cinderella’s (here called Ella) stepmother, Agnes, stands out among the best. Since her peasant family can no longer afford to raise her, 10-year-old Agnes works as a servant at a great manor. Clever, compassionate, and ambitious, she spends decades gradually improving her position, progressing from laundry girl to alehouse owner to nurse until she becomes a lady herself. A wordsmith, debuting novelist Teller paints Agnes’ everyday pain and hardship in enchanting, lyrical prose rich in whimsical, picturesque images about what would otherwise be harsh living conditions. Agnes’ love for her two daughters is palpable, but her relationship with fussy, sensitive, quiet Ella is rife with complications. Agnes built a stable life for herself through hard work, so it’s natural she’d try to teach Ella, who’s sweet but spoiled, the same lesson. However, Agnes, whether she realizes it or not, also punishes Ella for being more rich and beautiful than her own daughters. Fairy-tale aficionados will adore Teller’s complex, touching retelling of this classic story of womanhood, perseverance, and familial love, in which she strikes an ideal balance between familiar and fresh.”
|Malice by Heather Walter
First in the Malice duology.
From Publishers Weekly: “The villain takes center stage in Walter’s superlative debut, a refreshing spin on Sleeping Beauty. Alyce, called “Malyce” by the Graces she lives with at Lavender House, has the green blood of the Vila, an evil race of magical beings, running in her veins. The Graces, meanwhile, are gold-blooded, gifted with Fae magic as part of an alliance between the humans of Briar and the Fae of Etheria. Known as the Dark Grace, Alyce is rejected publicly, even as the rich and powerful solicit her dark magic in secret. Thus, it is assumed that the invitation to Princess Aurora’s 20th birthday party sent to Lavender House does not extend to Alyce—but she attends anyway. There she meets the princess, who is desperate to break the Vila curse that will kill her on her 21st birthday if she hasn’t found true love. Alyce feels responsible for her people’s spell and agrees to help Aurora—meanwhile working to build her own power in secret. As Aurora’s 21st birthday approaches, Alyce must come to terms with her growing feelings for the princess while navigating the political minefield of Briar, as the king hopes to exploit her powers for his own gain. The story grows deliciously darker at every turn, though the youthful protagonists still ensure plenty of YA crossover appeal. Fairy tale lovers of all ages will be thrilled.”
|For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten
First in the Wilderwood series.
From Publisher’s Weekly: “Whitten debuts with a dark, dazzling reimagining of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The kingdom of Valleyda sits on the edge of the Wilderwood, a magic forest that holds the monsters of the Shadowlands at bay–but for a price. Every Second Daughter of the Valleydan royal family must be sacrificed to the Wolf of the Wilderwood in exchange for the kingdom’s safety. Second Daughter Redarys has had 20 years to come to terms with her fate, even coming to embrace it. Upon entering the woods, she’s immediately endangered by the bloodthirsty trees, but she escapes the trees by entering the Wolf’s Keep. There she meets Eammon, the Wolf, who surprises her by giving her the option to return home. Afraid of hurting those she loves if she denies her destiny, Red chooses to stay. But the sentinel trees are dying, and if Red and Eammon can’t stop the decay, the Shadowlands will break free. 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. With clever, immersive prose and a subtle touch of horror, this is sure to enchant.”
|Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham ( )
From Publishers Weekly: “This elaborate fantasy series begins as a whodunit, but quickly unfurls into a much larger story about Fabletown, a place where fairy tale legends live alongside regular New Yorkers. Years ago, fables and fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella “were a thousand separate kingdoms spread over a hundred magic worlds,” until they were invaded and driven into hiding and, eventually, into modern-day Gotham. And so, on the city streets we find Beauty and the Beast in trouble with the law and Prince Charming reduced to a broke cad auctioning off his royal title, while his ex-wife, Snow White, rules over the de facto kingdom the fables created. When Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, disappears from a blood-soaked apartment, the Wolf, reformed and now the kingdom’s house detective, is assigned to the case. Willingham uses the Wolf’s investigation to introduce readers to Fabletown’s dissolute, hard-luck inhabitants, and he is at his best here, relishing one-liners and spinning funky background information of a world where fairy tale characters spend their time fretting about money and thinking up get-rich schemes. The mystery seems mostly an excuse to delineate Willingham’s world, as the caper is easily resolved-in true fairy tale fashion-during a massive ballroom celebration. Willingham’s dialogue is humorous, his characterizations are sharp and his plot encompasses a tremendous amount of information with no strain at all.”
Except as noted, annotations are supplied from the SELCO catalog