Best Contemporary Fairy Tale and Fantasy Novels for Adults

Published: February 27, 2014

This list includes my all time favorite contemporary fairy tale and fantasy books for adult readers. Some are retellings of classical fairy tales and some are original, but all of them are must reads for any fairy tale lover. Happy reading!

  1. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

    "The inspired concept of Maguire's praised debut, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, was not a fluke. Here he presents an equally beguiling reconstruction of the Cinderella story, set in the 17th century, in which the protagonist is not the beautiful princess-to-be but her plain stepsister. Iris Fisher is an intelligent young woman struggling with poverty and plain looks. She, her mother, Margarethe, and her retarded sister, Ruth, flee their English country village in the wake of her father's violent death, hoping to find welcome in Margarethe's native Holland. But the practical Dutch are fighting the plague and have no sympathy for the needy family. Finally, a portrait painter agrees to hire them as servants, specifying that Iris will be his model. Iris is heartbroken the first time she sees her likeness on canvas, but she begins to understand the function of art. She gains a wider vision of the world when a wealthy merchant named van den Meer becomes the artist's patron, and employs the Fishers to deal with his demanding wife and beautiful but difficult daughter, Clara. Margarethe eventually marries van den Meer, making Clara Iris's stepsister. As her family's hardships ease, Iris begins to long for things inappropriate for a homely girl of her station, like love and beautiful objects. She finds solace and identity as she begins to study painting. Maguire's sophisticated storytelling refreshingly reimagines age-old themes and folklore-familiar characters. Shrewd, pushy, desperate Margarethe is one of his best creations, while his prose is an inventive blend of historically accurate but zesty dialogue and lyrical passages about saving power of art. The narrative is both "magical," as in fairy tales, and anchored in the reality of the 17th century, an astute balance of the ideal and sordid sides of human nature in a vision that fantasy lovers will find hard to resist." - Publisher's Weekly

  2. The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

    "Folk legends of the changeling serve as a touchstone for Donohue's haunting debut, set vaguely in the American northeast, about the maturation of a young man troubled by questions of identity. At age seven, Henry Day is kidnapped by hobgoblins and replaced by a look-alike impostor. In alternating chapters, each Henry relates the tale of how he adjusts to his new situation. Human Henry learns to run with his hobgoblin pack, who never age but rarely seem more fey than a gang of runaway teens. Hobgoblin Henry develops his uncanny talent for mimicry into a music career and settles into an otherwise unremarkable human life. Neither Henry feels entirely comfortable with his existence, and the pathos of their losses influences all of their relationships and experiences. Inevitably, their struggles to retrieve their increasingly forgotten pasts put them on paths that intersect decades later. Donohue keeps the fantasy as understated as the emotions of his characters, while they work through their respective growing pains. The result is an impressive novel of outsiders whose feelings of alienation are more natural than supernatural." - Publisher's Weekly

  3. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

    "In the opening scene of Bray's riveting debut novel set in Victorian times, narrator Gemma Doyle walks the streets of Bombay, India, with her mother on her 16th birthday. By the end of the second chapter, her mother, who has told Gemma to return home, is dead, and Gemma has envisioned just how it happened, involving a "dark shape" that makes a "slithering sound." Next, readers find her on a train bound for Victoria Station, en route to Britain's Spence Academy. Gemma's visions intensify while at school, where she is led to a nearby cave and discovers a diary of a woman who had similar experiences. She soon learns of an age-old Order of sorceresses who can open doors between worlds—and of a tragedy two decades prior that is beginning to cast its shadow over her. Meanwhile, the girls of Spence are preparing for their "season," when they will be trotted out before wealthy bachelors in hopes of securing a good marriage. Bray brilliantly depicts a caste system, in which girls are taught to abandon individuality in favor of their man's wishes, as a deeper and darker horror than most things that go bump in the night. While aimed at female readers, it will be just as delectable to boys brave enough to be seen carrying a book sporting a corset-clad girl on the cover. The pace is swift, the finale gripping. A delicious, elegant gothic." - Publisher's Weekly

  4. Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire

    "

    Maguire has a lock on clever, elaborate retellings of fairy tales, turning them inside out and couching them in tongue-in-cheek baroque prose. After his revisionist takes on Oz's Wicked Witch of the West (Wicked) and Cinderella's ugly stepsisters (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), he now tackles Snow White. The notorious Borgia habit of poisoning rivals inspired him to transplant the classic tale to 16th-century Tuscany, where Vicente de Nevada is an expatriate Spanish widower who lives with his daughter, the fair Bianca. Beholden to sinister Cesare Borgia and Cesare's sister (and perhaps lover) Lucrezia, Vicente is sent on what appears to be a fool's errand, to discover and steal from a Middle East monastery a branch of the Tree of Knowledge complete with three apples. When Bianca is 11, Cesare's attraction to her causes the envious Lucrezia to order a young hunter to murder her and deliver her heart in a casket. Bianca, of course, is spared and taken in by seven dwarfs. But this is not Disney; the dwarfs are boulders, stirred to life by Bianca's arrival ("a clothed, bearded obstinacy became slowly apparent"). Several years pass in surreal, dreamlike fashion, with Bianca tending to the dwarfs, who cavort stiffly and philosophize collectively. When Vicente returns successful, Lucrezia poisons an apple for her rival. Innocent Bianca's fate is gentle, but that of the corrupt Lucrezia, in brilliant Venice, is appropriately grotesque. Fairy tales in their original form are often brutal and disturbing; with his rich, idiosyncratic storytelling, Maguire restores the edge to an oft-told tale and imbues it with a strange, unsettling beauty." - Publisher's Weekly

  5. The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

    "She can whisper to horses and communicate with birds, but the crown princess Ani has a difficult time finding her place in the royal family and measuring up to her imperial mother. When she is shipped off to a neighboring kingdom as a bride, her scheming entourage mounts a bloody mutiny to replace her with a jealous lady-in-waiting, Selia, and to allow an inner circle of guards more power in the new land. Barely escaping with her life, Ani disguises herself as a goose girl and wanders on the royal estate. Does she have the pluck to reclaim her rightful place? Get ready for a fine adventure tale full of danger, suspense, surprising twists, and a satisfying conclusion. The engaging plot can certainly carry the tale, but Hale's likable, introspective heroine makes this also a book about courage and justice in the face of overwhelming odds. The richly rendered, medieval folkloric setting adds to the charm." - Booklist

  6. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

    "Thriller writer Connolly (Every Dead Thing) turns from criminal fears to primal fears in this enchanting novel about a 12-year-old English boy, David, who is thrust into a realm where eternal stories and fairy tales assume an often gruesome reality. Books are the magic that speak to David, whose mother has died at the start of WWII after a long debilitating illness. His father remarries, and soon his stepmother is pregnant with yet another interloper who will threaten David's place in his father's life. When a portal to another world opens in time-honored fashion, David enters a land of beasts and monsters where he must undertake a quest if he is to earn his way back out. Connolly echoes many great fairy tales and legends (Little Red Riding Hood, Roland, Hansel and Gretel), but cleverly twists them to his own purposes. Despite horrific elements, this tale is never truly frightening, but is consistently entertaining as David learns lessons of bravery, loyalty and honor that all of us should learn." - Publisher's Weekly

  7. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

    "A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs.

    It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

    A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows." Amazon Review

  8. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

    "First novelist Wecker has blended not only genres but also elements of Jewish and Arab folklore and mythology in this intriguing historical fantasy. What happens when a golem, a Polish woman made of clay, recently marooned in late-nineteenth-century New York, joins forces with jinni, a creature made of fire, accidently released by a Syrian tinsmith in lower Manhattan? The premise is so fresh that it is anyone’s guess, and Wecker does not disappoint as she keeps the surprises coming in this unusual story of the intersection of two magical beings and their joint impact on their parochial immigrant communities. While stolid Chava and fiery Ahmed struggle to cope with their individual challenges and desires, they must together overcome philosophical, spiritual, and physical hurdles to ward off an insidious demonic threat. A mystical and highly original stroll through the sidewalks of New York." - Booklist

  9. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

    "'We are the minority the world does not accept,' Paige Mahoney tells us, referring to the struggles of clairvoyants, from soothsayers and mediums to her own high standing as a dreamwalker. In Shannon’s galvanic debut, the first in a series of seven novels, she brings us to Scion, a totalitarian state in England circa 2059, where “voyants” are designated “unnatural” and clairvoyance is outlawed. Torn from her beloved home in Ireland as a misfit girl, Paige, whose exceptional psychic powers are matched by nearly superhero physical prowess, found sanctuary in London’s criminal underworld, working for Jaxon Hall, a gang leader in the clairvoyant syndicate, until her arrest. Now she’s imprisoned in a penal colony, Sheol I, formerly the city of Oxford, a netherworld ruled by ectoplasmic beings called the Rephaim. Will Arcturus, Paige’s Rephaite keeper, prove to be as diabolical a tyrant as she fears? Not only has Shannon dynamically and shrewdly imagined every element of this spooky yet earthy world-at-war, from its unforgiving hierarchy to vile if essential herbal concoctions, encounters with monstrous predatory creatures, and the terror of “spirit combat,” she has also tapped into the timeless wellsprings of fear and prejudice, repression and resistance. The result is a dazzlingly brainy, witty, and bewitching tale of outrageous courage, heroic compassion, transcendent love, and the quest for freedom. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: An energetic, multifaceted print and online campaign, including viral teaser trailers, will launch this exciting debut, the first in a thoughtful fantasy series by a brilliant young writer." - Booklist

  10. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

    "Gaiman assumes the role of narrator for this book, offering an intimate reading that steals one's attention almost immediately and keeps the listener involved throughout. As the story is based in the United Kingdom, Gaiman is a quintessential raconteur for the tale, with his charming Scottish brogue instilling life and spirit into the central character of Richard Mayhew. Pitch perfect, with clear pronunciation, Gaiman invites listeners into his living room for a fireside chat, offering a private and personal experience that transcends the limitations of traditional narration. The author knows his story through and through, capturing the desired emotion and audience reaction in each and every scene. His characters are unique, with diverse personalities and narrative approaches, and Gaiman offers a variety of dialects and tones. The reading sounds more like a private conversation among friends with Gaiman providing the convincing and likable performance the writing deserves." - Publisher's Weekly

It is hard to pick the best one, but I reccomend starting with Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister for Maguire's sophisticated storytelling that refreshingly reimagines age-old themes and folklore-familiar characters. Shrewd, pushy, desperate Margarethe is one of his best creations, while his prose is an inventive blend of historically accurate but zesty dialogue and lyrical passages about saving power of art. The narrative is both "magical," as in fairy tales, and anchored in the reality of the 17th century, an astute balance of the ideal and sordid sides of human nature in a vision that fantasy lovers will find hard to resist.