The best books that capture the power of myth

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a fantasy author and mythologist who studies myth’s place in culture, history, and heritage conservation. To finish my doctorate, I moved from Seattle to Galway, Ireland and never left. Myth and folklore permeate the landscape around me as well as my day-to-day life. After grad school I returned to my first love, fiction, with all the knowledge and passion that came from the better part of a decade spent studying mythology. When I’m not writing, I spend my time exploring 5000-year-old tombs or practicing Fiore (14th century Italian sword fighting) with my husband. The Serpent and the Swan is the debut fairy tale in a much larger series.


I wrote...

The Serpent and the Swan: A Grimm-Dark Fairy Tale

By Ashland Pym,

Book cover of The Serpent and the Swan: A Grimm-Dark Fairy Tale

What is my book about?

Cygna isn’t human, something she can’t hide with a swan wing where her left arm should be. She’s the shameful product of a king and a fairy woman. The people fear that one day her fairy nature will win out against her human half. And she has been raised to fear herself.

But when Cygna comes of age, a monster from the Otherworlds begins its deadly march on the castle. The kingdom needs a champion, and they are more than willing to sacrifice Cygna’s life to save their own. She embarks on a quest that takes her into the Underworld and tangles her in a series of curses, least of all her own. It will only end when she decides which world she belongs to.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Small Gods

Ashland Pym Why did I love this book?

Terry Pratchett was an author fueled by worldly rage, and he turned that anger into deeply philosophical books cleverly disguised as fantasy satire. I first read Small Gods as a teenager and it forever shaped my view of narrative and belief. This theme creeps up repeatedly in my writing and it unashamedly started here.

Small Gods illustrates the power of myth over culture and religion, and what happens when myth stagnates. It has been written down and crystalized. Traditions and laws form around it. The myth can therefore no longer evolve with the culture it shaped. As with anything that stagnates, it becomes poisonous. Readers will no doubt recognize real-world parallels that will evoke some rage in some, but hopefully deeper thought as well.

By Terry Pratchett,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Small Gods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fans of Sir Terry Pratchett will love this stunning graphic novel adaptation of his bestselling standalone Discworld novel Small Gods. Beautifully brought to life by illustrator Ray Friesen, it takes a close look at religion's institutions, its people, its practices and its role in politics in Pratchett's unique way...

'An intriguing satire on institutionalized religion corrupted by power...' - Independent
'Deftly weaves themes of forgiveness, belief and spiritual regeneration' - The Times
'I loved this book. I wish it could go on and on and on because it was so enjoyable to read. I wish more books are like this…


Book cover of Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916

Ashland Pym Why did I love this book?

This book is one of the best at capturing the impact of myth on history, culture, and politics. Thompson starts long before the Easter 1916 Rising, the book’s central event, and examines how Celticity became a focal point of reclaiming an Irish identity separate from the British. Just as Jack Zipes’ Grimm Legacies demonstrates how the collection of folklore developed a unified German cultural identity, Thompson illustrates how collecting (and in many cases updating) the myths of the land gave Ireland not only a new identity but also a new history. The heroes of those mythic stories would be used for the next three centuries as allegories for both Ireland and the Irish in art, literature, theatre, and political rhetoric. It is the blueprint of all my worldbuilding.

By William Irwin Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Imagination of an Insurrection as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We know from our literary histories that there was a movement called the Irish Literary Renaissance, and that Yeats was at its head. We know from our political histories that there is now a Republic of Ireland because of a nationalistic movement that, militarily, began with the insurrection of Easter Week, 1916. But what do these two movements have to do with one another?… Because I came to history with literary eyes, I could not help seeing history in terms and shapes of imaginative experience. Thus Movement, Myth, and Image came to be the way in which the nature of…


Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Ashland Pym Why did I love this book?

This book takes place in the early 19th century and is masterfully written in the style of the time. The language is magical. I find every tangent, every pages-long footnote captivating. They are largely what makes the narrative so eerie, so other-worldly.

Clarke has taken the folklore of England and created it anew, with one important addition: the Raven King. The man who brought magic into the world. What she has created is dark and wild and harkens back to pre-Victorian folklore which is both thrilling and terrifying. All that the Victorians did to sanitize and civilize the myths of Britain and Ireland has been undone by Clarke’s skillful prose. And that struggle is lived out in the story as Mr. Norrell strives to make English magic ‘respectable.’

By Susanna Clarke,

Why should I read it?

22 authors picked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of…


Book cover of Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales

Ashland Pym Why did I love this book?

Folklore and nature conservation is a subjects close to my heart. When I met my husband, an ecologist, many of our first conversations were on the importance of narrative to get people interested in conservation efforts. Folklore is the perfect tool.

This book does that job beautifully. As a piece of narrative nonfiction, it collects fairy tales, personal memoirs, and natural history in a lyrical journey through the forests of England. Maitland centers each chapter on an English woodland and the stories associated with it, be they fairy tales or history. More importantly, she discusses not only how myth shapes culture, but how landscape shapes myth. I reference it time and again not only as an academic, but as an author who creates worlds rich in landscape and folklore.

By Sara Maitland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gossip from the Forest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fairytales are one of our earliest and most vital cultural forms, and forests one of our most ancient landscapes. Both evoke a similar sensation in us - we find them beautiful and magical, but also spooky, sometimes horrifying.

In this fascinating book, Maitland argues that the two forms are intimately connected: the mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forests were both the background and the source of the fairytales made famous by the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen. Yet both forests and fairy stories are at risk and their loss deprives us of our cultural lifeblood. Maitland…


Book cover of The Bear and the Nightingale

Ashland Pym Why did I love this book?

The first in the Winternight Trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale takes place in medieval Russia. Despite its historical setting, it feels like reading a fairy tale. Magical realism permeates the narrative as the main character Vasya, the granddaughter of a swan maiden, deals with serious real-world dangers alongside mythological ones. And where the first book struggles with pacing a little at the end, the second book more than makes up for it.

This is a book that feels like it was written just for me, and indeed I was surprised at so many striking thematic similarities between it and my own. Arden and I are clearly similar thinkers, and I cannot recommend the series enough to anyone who loves history, myth, and magical realism.

By Katherine Arden,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Bear and the Nightingale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_____________________________
Beware the evil in the woods...

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods. . .

Atmospheric and enchanting,…


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A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

Book cover of A Beggar's Bargain

Jan Sikes Author Of The Edge of Too Late

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Avid reader Lover of Music Astral Traveler Tarot Reader Grandmother

Jan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Historical Fiction Post WW2.

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father’s dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.
Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time—a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then, the banker makes an alternative proposition—marry his unwanted daughter, Sara Beth, in exchange for a two-year extension. Out of options, money, and time, Layken agrees to the bargain.

Now, he has two years to make a living off the land while he shares his life with a stranger. If he fails at either, he’ll lose it all.

A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

What is this book about?

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father's dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.

Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time-a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then, the banker makes an…


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