I don’t claim to be an expert on many things in my life but I feel like when it comes to retellings, I’m pretty damn close to being one.
There’s just something about retellings, specifically fairytale retellings, that bring me so much joy and escapism and remind me of all the things I loved when I was growing up. It takes me back to a time where I thought magic was real, where all I wanted to be was a princess and run away to a giant castle with my handsome prince. Sadly, I’m still waiting on that prince so I guess I’ll just keep reading my retellings instead.
But retellings can be a tricky thing, in my opinion. Rely too much on the original fairytale and your book lacks originality; rely too little on the original fairytale and you wonder why this was even labelled a retelling in the first place. There’s a tightrope you have to walk on when crafting a retelling and even the slightest misstep can have everything come crumbling down into the abyss. Luckily, most retellings I’ve read have been able to make it to the other side of the tightrope relatively unscathed, but there are some that probably shouldn’t have been published in the first place.
Now, what makes a retelling good, you ask? Well, it comes down to a few basic principles: 1) how much did the author utilize the source material, 2) how much did the author make it their own, and 3) can you, as the reader, point to the story and identify which fairytale it’s retelling? Those don’t seem like hard guidelines to follow, but you’d be surprised.
Each retelling will be ranked on a scale from 1-10, incorporating both the guidelines for the retelling and also my own personal enjoyment. As always, if you enjoyed a book that I did not it doesn’t mean that either one of us is right or wrong; it’s simply a matter of taste.
16. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Sometimes I like to block out that I even read this book. I didn’t even know this was a retelling as I was reading it and then it just ended up being poorly done on multiple angles. Hate the author, hate the book, hate the “retelling” if you can call it that, but it goes on the list because I unfortunately had the displeasure of reading it. 1/10.
15. House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
I had far too many high hopes for this one, I’m not going to lie. But the fact of the matter is that Craig tried to do far too much in one book, jumping from one genre to the other, and completely forgetting that this is supposed to be a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. There appeared to be structure initially, and by adding a murderous twist to the fairytale seemed to be how Craig would make it her own, but it all fell flat in the end. 2.5/10.
14. Heartless by Marissa Meyer
To be honest, this was more of a personal issue than anything, but compared to Meyer’s other retellings (more on that later) this was boring and flat. Since this was more of a prequel than an Alice in Wonderland retelling it allowed Meyer to have more liberty and freedom, but it still never felt interesting to me. I also don’t like Alice in Wonderland so I’m not sure why I expected to like this quasi-villain origin story. Oh well. 3.5/10.
13. Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim
Not a fairytale retelling, but a retelling nonetheless, Sim tried to take the story of The Count of Monte Cristo and flip the script with a gender-bending revenge story, but I think unless you’re super familiar with the original story you’re probably not going to get that this is a retelling. And since I wasn’t familiar, I didn’t really get it. The story is fine, but it’s pretty underwhelming and doesn’t really provide a lot of backstory context to whatever story was trying to be retold, I guess. The prose is nice so Sim’s got that going for her. 4/10.
12. Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
The (actual) first of many Beauty and the Beast retellings on the list, I think that Hodge had the originality angle going for her with this book, with a darker heroine intending on killing her Beast and straying away from the whole prisoner angle that the fairytale is based on, but it does have a forgettable quality to it. There wasn’t much about the story that stands out in my mind because I can’t remember it. I didn’t love the retelling, but I didn’t hate it. 5/10.
11. Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh
This is an insanely fun retelling of Mulan and I personally think that Ahdieh did a good job with keeping the integrity of the original tale all while making it her own. However, this is lower on my list simply because the second book in this duology fell a little bit flatter than the first book and kind of took away from my overall enjoyment. But I think Ahdieh wrote wonderful characters, gave fans of both the original tale and the Disney movie little easter eggs to enjoy, and still managed to make it her own story. 6.5/10.
10. A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer
If we pretend that this book is a standalone then it’s a very good retelling. But taking the other books into account, which ruined the integrity of this first book, it gets bumped down. What I liked about this particular Beauty and the Beast retelling was how it had this balance between the modern world and a fantasy world, which is how Kemmerer made it her own, in addition to the hows and whys of the Beast curse and how that stood out from the pack. I enjoyed Harper’s character and how she was always treated by the Beast character, Rhen, but their entire character development was thrown out the window later down in the series and it makes me sad. Regardless, this felt like a retelling that was more self-aware than others I’ve seen, with that modern versus fantasy world, and I just wish it was kept as a standalone in the end. 6.5/10.
9. Sea Witch by Sarah Henning
This is a great example of a villain origin story. Though the slight retelling of The Little Mermaid comes later in this series, what I loved about this book was how we not only had elements of that fairytale woven throughout the origin story of the sea witch character but Henning still made it something wholly original. I’d never knew I wanted a villain story for the Ursula character but it was more heartbreaking than expected, which is why it’s so high on my list. Feeling empathy for the sea witch? What a feat! It was so smart to focus on a familiar yet originally crafted character to carry this retelling, allowing more freedom for Henning to tell the story she intends. It is The Little Mermaid, but it’s also not, and to me that’s a solid retelling. 7.5/10.
8. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
What’s fun about this retelling is that it’s not only an interesting, new take on the tale of 1001 Nights but it also includes the tale of Aladdin within the story itself. And that is interesting because Aladdin was one of the 1001 stories told in the original fairytale. It’s an immersive book that is about stories and fairytales, how captivating tales like that can be, and I feel like Ahdieh did a much better job with this retelling than she did with Flame in the Mist. So many good elements, a great combination of lore and originality, and one of my favourites, for sure. 8/10.
7. To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo
When I say original fairytale retelling, I mean this. While most of the book is structured by the bones of The Little Mermaid, Christo already flipped the script by not only making her mermaid character a siren but the daughter of the Sea Witch, creating that much more interest and depth to her own story. Adding that to the fact that the siren and her prince both intend to kill one another, it makes this book such an interesting, dark, and original retelling and one I recommend to anyone who loves retellings as much as I do. It’s just so good and clever and inventive and I’m running out of adjectives but you get the point. 8.5/10.
6. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
These are the books that started it all for me, really. I think what makes this series of retellings so good, and so original, is how Meyer doesn’t shy away from the tales she’s retelling but the added sci-fi twist allows her own take on the concepts to really shine through. I mean, Cinderella as a cyborg? And instead of losing a shoe she loses her whole foot? That’s originality! But it’s not that Meyer relies on the fairytales to tell her story because these books have little to do with the fairytales in which they stem from, because it’s about more than an evil stepmother or the big bad wolf, it’s so many players and layers coming together to tell one, epic tale. The only reason this isn’t higher is because the first book is very sci-fi heavy and can be hard to get through, but the rest of the books are borderline perfect. 8.5/10.
5. The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury
Why don’t we, as a society, have more Aladdin retellings? Why? But the thing that makes this retelling special isn’t even Aladdin the character; it’s the genie. And it’s how Khoury, rather than focusing on Aladdin throughout the story, focuses on the genie character and makes her the main character of the story, making it focus on what it means to be prisoner to a magic lamp and master upon master, when freedom and love is all she dreams of. The originality literally oozes in this retelling, mainly in how our genie character falls in love with Aladdin and creates such an emotional and magical story. This retelling is an underrated treasure, that’s for sure. 9/10.
4. Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
As I’ve said before, the sure fire way to craft a retelling that will guarantee you originality is by taking a well known tale and shifting the focus onto a different character and showing their side of the story. And in this one, we learn about Tiger Lily, who is probably Peter Pan’s first love before he met Wendy. And we learn all about her tribe and how she fits into the story beyond being a piece of bait for Captain Hook. We see a more realistic Neverland, how the British intended to colonize this land, how Peter was taken away from Tiger Lily, and how much their relationship really mattered. Sometimes I go back and read Peter’s letter to Tiger Lily and start crying because of how beautiful it is. You cannot claim to be a Peter Pan fan, or a retelling fan, if you haven’t read this book. And! The narrator is actually Tinkerbell! How epic is that! 9/10.
3. Winterspell by Claire Legrand
Underrated doesn’t even begin to describe this book. Honestly, I kind of just want to keep this book to myself because it’s perfect for me and me alone. Legrand manages to take the classic tale of The Nutcracker and turn it into this industrial, gothic, steampunk adventure that probably shouldn’t work, but it does. The character of Clara is so empowering and a great symbol of feminism and has all these messages of unlearning hate in the world and it’s truly unlike anything I’ve read before. I’ll never get over this retelling. 9/10.
2. The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross
I simply do not care if you’re tired of Beauty and the Beast retellings because I’m sure not. And this one is oozing with originality, how it’s all from the Beast’s perspective and explores the depths of his character, of his curse, and of his relationship with the Beauty character. But what I love is that Shallcross doesn’t go about making the Beast cruel or heartless but it’s that he feels too much and he’s very aware of his actions. Though he does keep the Beauty character prisoner initially out of his own loneliness, he immediately gives her autonomy and the choice to leave if she desires. He’s simply happy for her company. There is so much heart and compassion in this retelling and to see the inner workings of the Beast’s mind and heart is what makes this version so special, in my mind. It is without a doubt one of my all time favourite books and I’m not sorry about it. 9.5/10.
1. Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry
This is how you do a retelling! This is how you do a villain origin story! This is how you write the most original, compelling, and darkest fairytale retelling I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not like anyone really asked for Captain Hook’s villain origin story but we deserved it and Henry delivered. In this version, we see that Peter Pan isn’t as magical or perfect as we’ve always perceived him to be. We see him as a controlling figure, one that you don’t cross, one that manipulates those around him and views everything as a game. And what sets this apart is that Hook’s origin story makes sense. You come to see why he hates Peter, why he turned and became the villain of the story, but you also come to wonder who the true villain really is in the end: Hook or Peter? This book is the gold standard of retellings and I don’t think anything is ever going to come close to beating it. 10/10.
Which retelling is your favourite? Did I miss any? Let me know!