The best fantasy novels based on legends, that don’t include elves, dwarfs or dragons

Gill Arbuthnott Author Of The Keepers' Daughter
By Gill Arbuthnott

Who am I?

I hoovered up fairytales when I was small, and when I learned to read on my own, I moved on to myths: British, Norse, Greek, Celtic... the Mabinogion, Edda, Ragnarok, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, you name it, I devoured it. From there it was a short hop for a voracious reader to fantasy fiction based on myths and when I began to write, that became a theme in my fiction. My first couple of books were influenced by Susan Cooper’s writing, and The Keepers’ Daughter draws on the Atlantis legend. Myths last for a reason: they may not be real, but at some level, they’re true.... 

I wrote...

The Keepers' Daughter

By Gill Arbuthnott,

Book cover of The Keepers' Daughter

What is my book about?

Orphaned as a baby, Nyssa has no idea where she comes from or who she really is, but she is haunted by dreams of someone else’s life. The arrival of threatening strangers on the quiet island where she lives brings danger, even as it reveals hints of her lost past. 

Nyssa has a hidden tattoo that carries half of a secret message. Now she must journey to the drowned city of Thira to find the other half, written on the twin she’s never known, and discover the truth behind the words that mark them. 

The books I picked & why

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The King Must Die

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why this book?

I’ve been interested in Greek myths since I was tiny, and in Greece since my first holiday there. (I go back almost every year and try to speak Greek to the locals) Mary Renault brings the legend of the Minotaur to life and turns the legendary characters into very real people, with very human flaws. I first read this book long before I visited Crete and when I eventually got to the ruins of Knossos it all unspooled in my head like a private movie. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read The King Must Die now – I've even had to buy a new copy, because I’ve worn the first one out. 

The Dark Is Rising

By Susan Cooper, Alan Cober (illustrator),

Book cover of The Dark Is Rising

Why this book?

I fell in love with this book, which weaves together all sorts of British legends and bits of history, when I was a child. Although it’s nominally a children’s book, I still re-read it every couple of years – it's a perfect book to read round about Christmas, full of snow and magic. It’s also been a huge influence on my own writing, so I’ve got a particularly soft spot for it. It’s part of a sequence of five books – all very good – which follow the eternal battle between good and evil, bringing in Celtic, Norse, and Arthurian legends. It’s a cracker – just don’t watch the awful film version! 

The Once and Future King

By T. H. White,

Book cover of The Once and Future King

Why this book?

I’ve been a sucker for Arthurian legends since I saw the movie The Sword in the Stone (loosely based on the first few chapters of this book) when I was 5. OK - so now you know what age I am! I’m convinced there must be a kernel of truth at the heart of all the legends and I’ve read a lot of Arthurian fiction. This is the best – at least to my mind. It’s thrilling, funny, clever, and heartbreaking. (I still can’t read the last chapter without snivelling.) Maybe this is how it really was.... 

The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller,

Book cover of The Song of Achilles

Why this book?

Back to those Greek legends.... Who could resist all those tales of the Trojan War? Helen and Paris, Hector and Achilles, Odysseus and Cassandra. So much literature, drama, opera (and a really tacky fake wooden horse at the entrance to the excavations at Troy) has sprung from them. The violence of the long siege, the involvement of the Gods, the love story of Achilles and Patroclus, are all brilliantly realised here. "Sexy, dangerous, mystical," says historian Bettany Hughes, which sums this book up rather well. 

The Oracle Betrayed

By Catherine Fisher,

Book cover of The Oracle Betrayed

Why this book?

Catherine Fisher uses myths brilliantly in all her books, but best of all in the trilogy of which The Oracle is the first volume. It’s a wonderful mash-up of Egyptian and Greek legends with characters you will grow to care about more and more with every page. Junior priestess Mirany begins to doubt the existence of the God she serves. The land where she lives is dying of drought, but the God doesn’t seem to listen to his people anymore, and a struggle for power that could destroy them all is about to take place. 

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