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THE B-LIST: Fairy tales for grown-ups

6 great retellings of classic stories

These fairy tale retellings are just as dark — and as magical — as the original stories.
These fairy tale retellings are just as dark — and as magical — as the original stories.

There's something about spring that puts me in the mood for a good fairy tale.

Maybe it's all of those pops of color from the flowers by the road, or that smell in the air — you know the one, yeah? — or the way it can suddenly shift from sunny blue skies to abrupt gray rain. Seeing the world bounce back from dead and brown to lush and leafy makes me think about magic.

Considering how intrinsic most fairy tales are, how they inform so much of our entertainment with their tried-and-true formulas and tropes and imagery, it can be difficult to find a really fresh take. So often, it feels a lot like "been there, done that, bought the overpriced Disney merch."

These six books manage to do the impossible: retell a fairy tale in a way that makes it brand new and exciting. And, coincidentally, they're also my favorite literary takes on the classic stories.

6. "WITCHES ABROAD" by Terry Pratchett ("Cinderella"). Discworld's unofficial top witch Granny Weatherwax drags fellow hags Nanny Ogg (the drunk one) and Magrat Garlick (the soppy one) on a road — er, broom — trip to the city of Genua, where a fairy godmother is warping stories to achieve a Happily Ever After, regardless of what Princess Ella really wants.

Several familiar tales pop up along the way — "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Frog Prince" — but the core of the plot is built around a black scullery maid who's actually the daughter of the deposed Baron. It's "Cinderella" by way of Louisiana, with voodoo witchcraft, zombies, black roosters, gumbo and Mardi Gras, as only Pratchett can tell it, full of puns and philosophic musings on the nature of stories (living entities in their own right in Discworld).

5. "THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE" by Katherine Arden ("Vasilisa the Beautiful"). When Vasya Petrovna's father brings home a new stepmother, the girl's life is thrown into turmoil. Like Vasya, Stepmother Anna can see the spirits of the forest — but unlike Vasya, who respects the spirits, Anna sees them as evil demons and her new daughter as a witch. While Anna encourages the villagers to turn their backs on their superstitions and embrace Christianity, enabling the evil bear Medved to grow in power, Vasya is taken under the wing of Morozko the frost demon.

Arden's prose is beautiful and the magical encounters are suitably dreamy and/or nightmarish. Vasya is a staunch believer in magic in the face of cruelty. The central conflict between paganism and Christianity may or may not be to your tastes — but ultimately good triumphs over evil (as it should in all fairy tales).

4. "THE BLOODY CHAMBER" (short story) by Angela Carter ("Bluebeard"). A beautiful but naive teenager is romanced by a much older nobleman, who swiftly marries her and carries her off to his remote castle. Almost immediately, the narrator suspects her new husband isn't what he seems, and with the help of a blind piano tuner uncovers his bloody secret.

"Bluebeard" has never been one of my favorite stories, but Carter makes this version scintillating by turning the feminist themes and gothic atmosphere up to 11. The narrator is innocent, but quickly comes into her own desires and needs, while the climax sees her mother — not brothers, as in the original tale — coming defiantly to her rescue.

3. "DEATHLESS" by Catherynne Valente ("Koschei and Marya Morevna"). “Just you wait. Papa Koschei is coming, coming, coming, over the hills on his red horse, and he’s got bells on his boots and a ring in his pocket, and he knows your name, Marya Morevna.”

As the Russian Revolution unfolds, Marya Morevna learns about life, death and love as she becomes the bride of Koschei, Tsar of Life.

This is a heckuva story, packing in almost every Russian fairy tale archetype — Baba Yaga, the traditional hero Ivan and various supernatural creatures like leshy and vilas — as well as bits of actual history: the Revolution, World War II, figures like Rasputin, Stalin and Trotsky. Valente's prose is sharp, dark and beautiful, and heroine Marya is a complicated figure.

2. "BEAUTY" by Robin McKinley ("Beauty and the Beast"). After her father's shipping company collapses and the family fortune is lost, teenaged Beauty and her sisters Grace and Hope move to a tiny village at the foot of a forest. And when her father unwittingly enrages the cursed Beast living in the forest's heart, it's Beauty who vows to take his place as the creature's hostage.

It's a "tale as old as time," but McKinley — easily the greatest living weaver of fairy tales — makes "Beauty" both reassuringly familiar and beautifully new. Beauty is a lovely narrator with depth and humor, the enchanted castle is thoroughly magical and the Beast is both tragic and endearing. Perhaps the best comfort book in my collection, it's a story I return to at least twice a year.

1. "SPINDLE'S END" by Robin McKinley ("Sleeping Beauty"). Cursed on her Naming Day by the evil fairy Pernicia, Princess Rosie is given to the teenaged fairy Katriona, who hides her in her tiny village and raises her as her cousin. Over the years, Rosie's knack for beast-speech and preference for breeches turns her into the local horse leech. But then the truth of her parentage comes out — and it will take all of her animal friends, foster family and the blacksmith Narl to thwart Pernicia's spell.

This is one of the richest, most emotional and most beautiful stories I've ever read. Love — between family and friends, for nature and romantic — permeates everything. The world-building is incredible. The characters are colorful and fun. The danger feels real. McKinley managed the impossible: she made me care about "Sleeping Beauty," who so often is a boring, bland character. If you read only one fairy tale retelling, make it "Spindle's End."

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at abarry@shawmedia.com.

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