The best fairy tales to read on a dark winter’s night

The Books I Picked & Why

Deathless

By Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless

Why this book?

Set in Russia during World War II, this is a retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless. I was absolutely ensnared by the lush prose and the heart-tugging plight of a girl whose youth was stolen by war and hunger and strife. Though we live in very different times and places, in Marya Morevna I saw myself, a girl who reads Pushkin and feels more comfortable among the impossible creatures that dwell within the walls of her house than with the other kids at school. A girl whose childhood is both magical and frightening, who is one day rescued—or kidnapped?—from her stifling overcrowded home by an immortal being straight out of a fairy tale, a girl who suddenly learns that the world is far more wondrous and terrible than she could ever have imagined. At times baffling, challenging, beautiful, and deeply resonant, Deathless is one of my absolute favorite books, and perfect to read with a hot cup of tea as the snow falls silently on the other side of a half-fogged window.


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Keturah and Lord Death

By Martine Leavitt

Keturah and Lord Death

Why this book?

When Death comes for Keturah after she follows a hart into the woods and becomes hopelessly lost, she tells the stern but handsome Lord Death a story that grants her a reprieve for twenty-four hours. In that time, she must find her true love or else be carried away by Lord Death on his dark horse when her time is up. In beautiful, straightforward prose, this short novel feels like a true fairy tale of old, haunting and romantic, sad and full of hope. I’ve read this book so many times now that I’ve lost count, but the final scenes between Keturah and Lord Death never fail to take my breath away, and I find something new and beautiful in it each time I crack open its spine. 


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Alice

By Christina Henry

Alice

Why this book?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have always been among my childhood favorites, so much so that most retellings of these stories often fall flat for me, but Christina Henry pulls off something truly special in her book Alice. Alice, now an adult locked in an insane asylum, one day escapes with her companion Hatcher, an ax-murderer who loves her fiercely and would do anything to protect her. Dangers lurk around every corner as they travel through a city run by various nefarious crime bosses, from the Walrus to the White Rabbit, and on their journey to safety, Alice comes into her own magical powers just in time for a confrontation with the fearsome Jabberwocky. This book and its sequel, Red Queen, have so completely captured my heart that I feel like a part of me will always be in Wonderland, wandering alongside Alice and Hatcher through the odd avenues of that dark and dreadful place.


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Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow

Why this book?

Okay, maybe this one’s not so much a wintery book as a bright summery book, but I couldn’t leave it off this list. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books are consistently amazing, but this one is my favorite. A woman assigned to clean the floors of her grandfather’s florid estate and dreaming of something more finds a mysterious wooden box, and opening it releases the spirit of the Mayan god of death who’s been imprisoned there. He enlists her help freeing his realm from his treacherous brother, and if she succeeds, she can have everything she’s ever wanted—namely, freedom. Set in Jazz Age Mexico, the sharp, beautiful prose and delicious eeriness of Casiopeia’s journey to the underworld combine to make a heart-stopping tale of Mexican folklore from a master storyteller. 


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The Bear and the Nightingale

By Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale

Why this book?

A clash of worlds, of religions, of the old and the new infuses this stunning story is set in Medieval Russia. It’s a loose retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful featuring an intrepid girl that refuses the life laid out for her, a cunning priest, an ancient god of cold and death, a dark, sleeping bear, and the long, harrowing winters of the north. This book unfurls slowly, generously, lush with details that make you feel as if you were really shivering next to a dwindling fire, or searching for snowdrops at midwinter, or sleeping in a cottage made of snow and ice. The first in a trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale is full of characters that will needle under your skin, imagery like something out of a dream, and adventure that never really ends, only pauses for a while to allow a little rest. I was drawn in by the magic, but stayed for the world-building and the fairy tale romance.


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