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Bookworms Review: Retellings

Retellings allow old characters to become new in exciting ways. Here are some we recommend. Illustration by Pearl McNames

Some of our favorite books to explore are well-done retellings based on mythology or classic stories. For the former Percy Jackson kids out there, here are some incredible retellings we highly recommend.

In keeping with our middle school obsessions, we will start with two retellings centering untold stories about women in Greek mythology: Circe by Madeline Miller and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. Circe features the witch who turned the crew of Odysseus’ men into pigs when they ventured onto her island in the Odyssey. The story of this immortal being didn’t start with Odysseus, though. In this retelling, Circe is given a complex background and becomes a flawed, whole character who is deeply deserving of empathy and eventually grows into her power in an incredible way. This book allows its heroine to make mistakes, contain passion and anger, and still keep readers rooting for her.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes is centered around the Battle of Troy and the women who were impacted by it. The book opens with a woman inside a house aflame, panicked and struggling to understand how Troy, the supposedly impenetrable city, had come under siege. It continues on to become a type of anthology depicting the stories of women on every side of the war, from goddesses to wives to warriors, all told by the muse Calliope. This depicts myths as more of a story, something more universal, and exemplifies the beauty of the retelling: each of the characters get a new perspective or story, and become the author’s own.

For fans of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, we recommend Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Bree Matthews is still reeling from the death of her mother when she decides to attend UNC-Chapel Hill’s early college program. It doesn’t even take one day into the program for Bree to witness a supernatural fight between students and a demon that feeds on human energies. Quickly wrapped up in a magical secret society directly tied to Arthur and his knights, she realizes that there may have been more to her mother’s death than she was told. Plot twists and lovable characters abound in this exciting book that not only includes medieval English legend but also Southern black culture. This is a binge-read-in-a-day masterpiece that will leave you pining for the yet to be released sequel. 

Ahab’s Wife; Or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund is a retelling based off of a brief passage in Moby Dick where Captain Ahab briefly mentions a wife. The story revolves around the life and loves of Una Spenser, Naslund’s own character who, at one point in her life story, marries the fabled captain. However, the story in no way centers him. From living part of her early life on a beloved lighthouse to disguising herself as a boy in search of adventure to becoming a fierce mother, Una is a complex character with an unbelievable story. This book is fairly dense, but it is not monotonous in the slightest. Naslund has taken a classic book and created her own masterpiece out of the merest glimpse of an unknown character. For those who enjoy rich prose, skillful use of language and complex female characters, this book is for you. Read carefully, though—as rewarding as this book is, its intensity can be difficult to grapple with.

Set in 1920s Shanghai, These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong is a Romeo and Juliet retelling that is both violent and delightful. Juliette Cai, heir to the powerful Scarlet Gang, has just returned to Shanghai from America when a strange monster begins attacking innocent people, and gangsters from rival gangs, on the street. Our Romeo is Roma Montagov, Russian heir to the Scarlet’s rival gang, the White Flowers. They decide to set their past and family rivalries aside in order to figure out the source of the violent attacks. These Violent Delights is filled with tension and amazing side characters: Marshall Seo (Mercutio), Benedikt Montagov (Benvolio), and Juliette’s friends Rosalind (Rosaline) and Kathleen Lang (Juliet’s Nurse). Despite being a retelling this book somehow manages to feel completely new and original. If you enjoy historical fiction, Shakespeare, and/or the slow burn enemies to lovers trope this book is for you! 

If you’re looking to broaden your folklore knowledge, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden might be the perfect next read for you. This Russian fairytale inspired historical fiction follows Vasilia (Vasya), daughter of a Russian lord and the granddaughter of Ivan II. After her mother dies in childbirth Vasya spends her young childhood exploring the forest on the outskirts of their remote village until her father brings home a new wife. Forbidden from honoring the household spirits by their new stepmother, the malevolent creatures of the forest begin to encroach on village life. Vasya has to use the powers she has been hiding from everyone she loves in order to save her family and village. This book is simultaneously beautiful and fun. Vasya is a strong female protagonist with a unique personality who tackles gender stereotypes while still feeling like a woman accurate to her time period. At times it can be a little bit of a slow read but is 100% worth it for the magical story and compelling characters.

Honorable Mentions: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney, and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller are some more retellings that we’ve read or heard good things about!  
Many of these books contain upsetting or triggering content. For more information on these subjects, or if you have any suggestions, reactions, or additional opinions on books you want to share with us, we welcome all emails sent to [email protected].

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Bookworms Review: Retellings