My theme for this quarterly roundup is fairy tales and folktales, and it might just be my favourite theme to date. I have a deep love for stories that tell new fairy tales in the old style, or that take the old tales, reimagine them, reshape them, and turn them into something new, whether it’s by putting a different spin on the characters or the setting or the point of view or something else. Luckily for me, and you, there is a lot of masterful and audacious fairy tale/folktale-inspired short fiction to feast upon.
“Immolatus” by Lyndsie Manusos in The Deadlands
Manusos deftly reshapes the story of Bluebeard, who famously murders his wives in various gruesome ways and keeps their bodies in a locked room in his castle. Here, the dead wives are not just victims; they are the narrators of their own stories, before and after their deaths. Unbeknownst to their murderer, they haunt his castle and watch as he brings yet another bride home, and while he might think he is in control of what will happen, his new wife, and his old wives, have other ideas. A powerful haunted and haunting story that brings together a chorus of strong, unforgettable voices.
“City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat” by Usman T. Malik at TOR.com
“Listen, my new goray friends … as I tell you a story first told by the sages of Samarkand, buried in the annals of history, lost to centuries of marauding and pillaging; then revived in the rumors of the unlettered, the street-sons, who seeded it into the bosoms of their troubadours; and finally passed it to us through the songs of those sweet-lipped.”
(I just had to quote this gorgeous line in its entirety. It is spoken by the Pakistani storyteller Baba Kahani in Malik’s exquisitely crafted, wondrous tale.) The intro at TOR.com calls this “a spell-binding tale” where "a Pakistani storyteller captivates a group of wide-eyed tourists with a nesting doll of interlocked stories about a trickster and a hidden city ruled by the Queen of Red Midnight." And yes, this is indeed spellbinding storytelling. Malik’s ravishingly beautiful prose sings and soars as we follow the tale within the tale within the tale, as the characters and the magic are spun and then unraveled.
“The Tale of Jaja and Canti” by Tobi Ogundiran in Lightspeed
Threads of the tale of Pinocchio are woven into this beautiful story by Ogundiran, but here, Jaja, the boy carved from wood by his Papa, isn’t looking to be turned into a “real boy.” Instead, what drives him is a quest for love, and it leads him on a long, winding journey from home, to sea, and eventually to the city of Orisun. He is searching for the Midnight Queen, the woman who gave him life by singing to him. This is a tale filled with sadness and beauty and hope, and I love the way it gives a new heart to the story about the boy made of wood.
“Seedling” by Octavia Cade in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sept/Oct 2021
In Cade’s unsettling and profoundly evocative story, the old tale of Hansel and Gretel left to starve in the woods is reshaped into a tale that is as twisted and as strong as roots and vines. It’s a tale haunted by hunger and by urges that tread a line between reality, myth, and magic, and it makes for a riveting, dreamlike story that goes deep into the heartwood of both fairy tale and reality.
“Straw Spun” by Leah Cypess at Cast of Wonders, narrated by Suna Dasi (first published in Sword & Sorceress 27, November 2012)
The tale of Rumpelstiltskin, who bargained with royalty and turned straw into gold, is well known. Here, Cypess spins a tale about a princess, born and raised in the shadow of Rumpelstiltskin’s exploits. The princess grows up knowing that both she and the realm are in peril if Rumpelstiltskin should return. And when he does indeed return, the princess must face the truth of what happened all those years ago, including the truth about the disappearance of her mother. It’s a wonderfully layered story about family and love, about the choices we make for good or not so good reasons, and it’s a story about a girl who has never found it easy to be what people expect her to be.
“Spindles” by Samantha Mills in Kaleidotrope
In this unsettling and dreamlike tale, science fiction is melded with fairy tale, as a young girl and her bear protector are on the run in a strange and nightmarish landscape. They are hunted by terrifying alien creatures, and the girl tells herself stories of spindles and princesses, echoing the story of Sleeping Beauty, to make sense of the world she finds herself in. Once reality begins to fray and peel back, what is beneath that surface might be even more dangerous than what she believed she was facing.
“The White Road; Or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” by Marika Bailey in Fiyah #18
Bailey has written some masterful stories that retell old Greek myths in bold new ways (for example, “An Irrational Love” in Fiyah #12 and “Honey and Mneme” in Apparition Lit). Here, she crafts a new story that has the texture and feel of ancient myth, about a young crow setting out from her nest to earn her true name by going on a worthy adventure. The journey the young crow embarks on takes her to the bottom of the ocean where she finds the bones of the enslaved Africans who died on slave ships crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a rich story where death and pain and hope are intertwined, and it involves magnificent characters like The Queen of Crows and Death itself. Bailey’s marvelous prose makes this story flow and sing like a folktale.
“Madness Afoot” by Amanda Hollander in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sept/Oct 2019
Good old Cinderella gets a wickedly sharp and thoroughly entertaining makeover in this story by Hollander. It’s an epistolary tale, told in a series of exasperated letters written by the fairy-tale prince’s sister, Orsolya, to her husband, Ignats. Through these missives, we learn that the supposedly charming prince is probably not the best decision-maker, or the sharpest mind, in the realm. But with the help of a representative for the Cobbler’s Union (shoes are afoot!), and some behind-the-scenes machinations initiated by Orsolya, there might be a happily-ever-after anyway, for the prince and the realm.
“Lace, Comb, Apple” by Y. M. Pang in The Dark
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?”
And because you were the first person I’d ever seen, I said, “You, my lady.”
Pang gives us a wonderfully dark, eerie, and innovative take on the story of Snow White. Here, the story is told from an unexpected and inspired point of view as our narrator is the magic mirror itself. Or, more specifically, our narrator is someone inside the mirror. What follows puts a real twist on both the stepmother queen and young Snow White, and I love how Pang restrings the narrative by introducing this new, mysterious, and long-suffering character into the tale.
Other fantastic new takes on Snow White include “Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott at TOR.com, “A Cookpot, a Knife, a Pile of Rags” by Virginia Mohlere in Cicada Magazine from 2018, and “How To Become a Witch-Queen” by Theodora Goss in Lightspeed (originally published in the anthology Hex Life).
My own favourite fairy tale is probably “Little Red Riding Hood.“ I guess I just can’t resist a story that has three of my favourite things in it: a girl, a wolf, and a grandmother. Whenever I talk about “Little Red Riding Hood“ and how endlessly adaptable that story is, I usually mention three versions of the tale that exemplify how three different authors can create three wildly different, stunning new versions of the same tale:
- “Red” by Malinda Lo in Foreshadow
- “Toothsome Things” by Chimedum Ohaegbu in Strange Horizons
- “Red Hood” by Eric Schaller in Nightmare
Another old tale that has inspired many fabulous retellings is “The Little Mermaid,” and for anyone who would like some delightfully un-Disneyfied versions of that tale, I recommend:
- “The Little Mermaid, In Passing” by Angela Slatter (available in Slatter’s short-story collection The Heart Is a Mirror For Sinners; the story was originally published in The Review of Australian Fiction, April 2017)
- “All the Souls Like Candle Flames” by Vanessa Fogg in Luna Station Quarterly
- “From Witch to Queen and God” by L. D. Lewis in Mermaids Monthly
- “My Mirror, My Opposite” by Y. M. Pang in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“The Hundredth House Had No Walls” by Laurie Penny at TOR.com
My final pick for this quarterly roundup is this gorgeously crafted reimagining of a fairy-tale romance by Laurie Penny. Once upon a time, a man comes to the fallow Fields of Fancy. He brings the land back to life with his stories, shaping the very substance of the earth and its inhabitants according to his whims and wishes. Eventually, he becomes bored with his power and goes looking for new thrills in New York City. In NYC, he finds a woman, but she is much harder to bend to his will than the Fields of Fancy, and there is no easy happily-ever-after for them. Penny’s tale moves effortlessly between the Country of Myth and Shadow and the real world, creating a powerful fable about magic, and love, and fantasy.